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Taking the Pits Out of Choosing an Italian Olive Oil for Cooking

March 23, 1989|CAROLINE E. MAYER | The Washington Post

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson tried valiantly to grow olive trees in the United States.

As an ambassador to France, Jefferson fell in love with the taste of olive oil and shipped hundreds of trees to South Carolina, hoping that ultimately a similarly delicious product could be made here.

Jefferson failed in his efforts after the climate proved too harsh. But if he were alive today, he would certainly be pleased at the wide variety of imported olive oil available to Americans.

To test the assortment of different brands on store shelves, eight olive-oil experts conducted a blind taste test.

The experts--Italian chefs and olive-oil importers--had the daunting task of tasting 17 different oils (and early in the morning, no less) that ranged in color from a dark cloudy green to bright yellow to a clear, colorless liquid.

Some tasted by spoon; others used bread. Still others, including Valerio Calcagno of the Italian specialty store Vace Inc. in Washington, D.C., put drops of oil in their hands, rubbed them together and then smelled to get the full aroma of the oil.

Calcagno knew what he was doing; when he was young, he used to make olive oil in his native Italy, he said. Smelling the oil on the hand is a ritual as important as smelling the cork of a wine bottle.

The chefs and importers were not easily fooled. All readily discovered Bertolli's Extra Light olive oil--an intentionally colorless, odorless and tasteless oil designed for Americans who want to eat olive oil for health reasons but dislike the taste.

"Is this really olive oil?" one after another asked.

As a result, these hardy souls--with strong taste buds as well--gave Extra Light a unanimously unacceptable rating. True fans of extra-virgin oil, they also gave the only other oil that was not an extra-virgin--Bertolli's "100 percent Pure" oil--a relatively low rating, although several did acknowledge it would be a good oil for cooking.

(The two non-virgin oils were included in the test primarily for comparison.)

Leaves No Aftertaste

Of the 15 extra-virgin brands, the experts centered their praise on three Italian oils, which interestingly enough varied widely in price--a sign that you don't have to spend $20 or more a bottle for a good oil.

The least expensive was Alessi from Italy, which sells at a supermarket chain in Washington for $4.09 for 17 ounces.

"It is tasty but leaves no aftertaste," said Mimmette LoMonte, an Italian cookbook author who admits that she dislikes many extra-virgin oils because they have strong aftertastes. Other olive-oil aficionados, however, say they like a sharp, peppery aftertaste.

Also scoring high was the more expensive Fini, also from Italy, which sells at specialty stores for about $17 for 17 ounces. Roberto Donna, chef and owner of the restaurant Galileo, liked the dark green color and said it was "acid at the right point," adding that it must have come from hand-picked olives. Machine-picked olives, he added, have considerably more bite.

Poggio al Sole, an unfiltered green oil from Tuscany that sells for about $32 for 17 ounces at specialty stores, was the third standout among the oils.

"Excellent," said Calcagno, who also ranked Alessi and Fini as high. "Good color, good taste, good for salad oil," added Giorgio Di Pietri, from Enotria International, an importing company.

The testers were not so generous to two other brands with big-name backers. They gave the expensive Villa Nicola--a $24 17-ounce bottle touted by the indefatigable chairman of Chrysler Motor Co., Lee Iaccoca--an unacceptable rating. "Might as well use water," one taster commented. (The bottle, with a wax top, also was very difficult to open.)

Receiving a fair rating was La Tavola Di Medici, the brand promoted by the well-known Italian cook Lorenza de Medici. "Very acid," commented Donna.

Donna cautioned consumers to be careful when reading olive-oil labels. Although the oil may say "product of Italy," it may not be Italian olive oil. Rather, he noted, it may be oil that has been shipped from other Mediterranean countries--especially Spain, the world's largest producer--to Italy, where it is mixed and/or packaged to be shipped abroad.

Spanish Oil Harsher

Most olive-oil aficionados prefer the oil made of Italian-grown olives, which are generally heavy and robust. Spanish olive oil is considered harsher in taste, said chef Jenifer Harvey Lang. In her book "Tastings," she also notes that pure French olive oil has a more subtle and often fruity taste.

With more olive oil coming into the country, many importers are concerned that some of the bottles may be mislabeled--with some pure oil selling as extra virgin and some olive oil containing other types of oil as well.

Although the product is not regulated by the U.S. government, Food and Drug Administration officials are periodically sampling imports to see if the product is indeed what the label says. In 1987, one importer was cited for mixing soybean oil with olive oil, but no citations were issued last year.

So what is the best way to pick an extra-virgin olive oil that you know to be the real thing and at the same time agrees with you? Lang suggests you go about it much the same way you select a favorite wine.

Our experts, who also included Francois Dionot, owner of L'Academie de Cuisine cooking school in Bethesda, Md.; importer Maria Di Pietri; Sidney Moore, owner of Mayflower Liquors, which sells imported olive oil; and Danny Miranda, chef at the Italian Embassy, ranked the following extra-virgin olive oils:

Standouts: Alessi, Fini and Poggio al Sole unfiltered.

Above Average: Bertolli, Poggio Lamentano.

Average: Hilaire Fabre Pere & Fils, Santagata.

Fair to Below Average: Old Monk, Olio Sasso, Pompeian, Colavita, La Tavola Di Lorenza deMedici and Badia a Coltibuono.

Unacceptable: Villa Nicola, Savoir Faire.

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