Food in the News: Facts on Real Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Oils produced in Tuscany are often characterized by their pleasing, peppery bite. Fattoria Il Peraccio (pictured at far left), made from a classic Tuscan blend of moraiolo, frantoio, and leccino olives, is no exception, and it boasts a rich, buttery texture to boot. With a slightly bitter finish that balances its robust character, it's perfect for serving with grilled steak or flavorful greens, like arugula. Buy it at DiPalo's; $36.99 for 750 ml. Oleificio Chianti's olive oil (second from left) is produced in the Siena region in Tuscany. This blended oil, made from various pressings of olives (including 40 percent extra-virgin oil), is delicate enough to be used in a¿oli and salad dressings. Stephen Singer Olio sells a liter bottle for $20. The Capezzana estate, operating in Tuscany's Prato region for more than 1,200 years, releases a vintage extra-virgin olive oil every year (second from right). The estate's 2009 olive oil is golden green and has a slightly bitter, fresh, and citrusy taste. It's sold at Olio2Go; $39.95 for 500 ml. Oleificio Chianti's Buonaspore (far right) oil is 100 percent extra-virgin and happens to be a great value at $27.50 for 750 ml. This piquant oil, which is also distributed by Stephen Singer Olio, tastes of green apples and artichokes; it's a wonderful all-purpose oil for frying, marinating, and garnishing.Anna Stockwell

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.