No one in America knows more about extra-virgin olive oil better than writer, traveler, food authority and historian Nancy Harmon Jenkins. The James Beard Award-winning author’s Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil is a hybrid investigative report, cultural history and cookbook. Here, a quick, deep dive into olive oil politics.
The International Olive Council decides what olive oil is good enough to be called “extra virgin.” Who are they?
The International Olive Council was established by the United Nations in 1959. They represent all of the olive-producing countries—countries that rely on olive oil as a major part of their agriculture. It’s an industry group that promotes the industry as well as the consumption of olive oil. Because of this, it wants a very broad embrace of all kinds of olive oil producers—including those not making very good olive oil.
Is that why an “extra virgin” label doesn’t necessarily mean great quality?
Yes. It’s the result of political pressures on the Council. Producers of truly fine extra-virgin olive oil would discard many oils that qualify for that title.
I loved the old joke you retell: “Where is the best oil from? Spain. And where is the worst oil from? Spain.”
It’s true of almost everywhere in the world. You could get good oil and bad oil. I know some Tunisian oil that is just fabulous, and I know some Tunisian oil that you probably wouldn’t even want to rub on your fingertip. And it’s just as easy to find bad olive oil in Italy as it is to find it in America.
What exactly are in those yellow tins you see at the supermarket marked “pure olive oil”?
If it just says “olive oil,” then it’s oil that failed to meet the International Olive Council’s criteria for extra virgin. Regular olive oil, according to the North American Olive Oil Association, is refined by several different methods, including using charcoal and/or caustic soda, or physical processes such as heat, steam, vacuum separation, remove the disagreeable flavors and aromas to create an inert oil—one that has no color, no aroma and no flavor. Finally, they filter and add some extra virgin to it to top it off. “Pure olive oil” should not be confused with extra-virgin.
How do people train their palates to recognize what bad oil tastes like?
What I like to do is to give people a taste of regular extra-virgin olive oil off the shelf in the supermarket. That’s the first taste. And everybody tastes it and says, “This is olive oil.” And then they taste a really high-quality olive oil—like my favorite from a small producer in Sicily—and the flavors just blow your mind. When you taste the two different oils side by side, there is a huge difference, and you can taste it. (For advice on how to buy high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, see Jenkins’s nine pro tips.)
What has surprised you about olive oil in recent years?
More than anything else, it’s the leaps and bounds they’ve made in California. Their olive oils are not yet great, but they are really good at a good price. People should be able to have that kind of oil in their pantries and on their tables.