Many people believe the best olive oil comes from Italy, and manufacturers go to great lengths to indulge us. Some mix their oil with low-grade product; others ship their oil to Italy for bottling. The July 6, 2010, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service reports that Italy produces 300,000 metric tons (MT) of extra-virgin olive oil each year, of which it exports 80,000 MT. However, it consumes 700,000 MT of the oil. Does this mean that Italians are consuming a substantial amount of imported oil—and that the oils we get in the United States are not truly Italian? Realizing that there was a problem of mislabeled oil, the FDA required in 2009 that all oil sold in the U.S. must be labeled with its country of origin. You’ll find that detail on the back label, though it’s often in microscopic print.
As new markets demand the highest-quality olive oil, production can’t keep up with demand, and the potential for fraud increases. Only ten years ago, Italy, Spain, and Greece consumed 90 percent of the worldwide market; now they are down to 60 percent, with consumption rising in Japan, South America, and the U.S. Unaprol, the association of Italian olive oil producers, in conjunction with Gambero Rosso, the publishing concern behind one of Italy’s foremost wine and food guides, will put out a comprehensive handbook in 2011 listing the highest-quality extra-virgin olive oils. However, until that comes out, choose the oil as you do wine. There are hundreds of varieties of olives, and single varietals are prized. It’s important to trust your vendor and read the label. Look for clues to where the olives come from and whether it’s an estate-bottled oil. Lastly, develop your taste buds. For your next dinner party suggest that each of your guests bring a bottle of premium olive oil. Boil, peel, and slice some red potatoes (bread has flavor; potatoes are used because they act as a more neutral base), and serve the potatoes as an antipasto. You and your guests will have fun discovering some previously unknown oils, and you’ll learn what appeals to you. In the end it really is the taste that matters.