Olive oil is a staple ingredient in Mediterranian cooking, and was once so plentiful in southern Italy that it was used to fuel street lamps. The olive tree has been harvested for its oil for millenia, and the product is integral to Greek, Italian, Turkish and Spanish recipes: around 2.5 million tonnes of olive oil are consumed worldwide each year. Still, the quality of olive oil varies hugely and can make or break a dish: a good olive oil should smell fruity and fresh, like green grass or fresh tomatoes, and is perfectly delicious enjoyed on its own with a hunk of bread.
First of all, how did you fall in love with olive oil?
I love to answer this question! In 2007 I was working for a company selling Mediterranean products, one of which was olive oil. It was quite easy for me to separate good from great quality products, but the only one I didn’t understand at all was olive oil. Sometimes you taste it and it’s delicious, sometimes it’s horrible, but I didn’t really understand what I was looking for or why. I visited farms, I tasted a lot of oil straight from the press and I watched the process of the olives going into the machinery and coming out as oil, but still I was none the wiser.
I wanted to learn more about it, so I started lessons at O.N.A.O.O.school in Imperia where I had lectures from different professors about olive oil. They teach you how to smell and taste olive oil, and I think that’s what really opened my eyes to it. I also did an olive oil sommelier course in New York. When I came back from my trip, a publisher reached out to me, inviting me to write a book on the subject. I think everyone wishes to write a book once in their lifetime: I never thought I’d do it, but now the book has been published a second time and in 4 different languages.
Every human being needs fat, and olive oil is the healthiest fat that exists. It’s clean, and it’s a gift of nature.
Why is olive oil so special, and what are its health benefits?
Well, first of all you have polyphenols, which are one of the antioxidants found in olive oil. This is what gives olive oil that bitter taste in your mouth. Then you have squalene, which gives oxygen to your veins. Squalene is something that’s only found in olive oil and deep-sea shark liver, so it’s extremely special. If you have a very expensive face cream it usually contains some squalene, because by giving oxygen to your veins it helps to get moisture to your body. Artisanal olive oil still has a bit of squalene in it, but many large companies take the squalene out and sell it for cosmetics. Finally, the fat itself is very good for your body. Every human being needs fat, and olive oil is the healthiest fat that exists. It’s clean, and it’s a gift of nature. People often say it’s a ‘healthy fat,’ and this is true if you have virgin olive oil because it’s unrefined, and all the healthy compounds are left in.
So until the first taste workshop we did together recently, olive oil for me was just oil. I didn’t have any idea about all the different variations in quality. What is ‘good’ olive oil in your opinion?
Good olive oil is oil without defects. You can have delicate olive oil, medium olive oil or robust olive oil. It’s the same as wine – if you have very smooth and soft extra virgin olive oil, then it’s a perfect match for a salad or white fish. If you have something with mashed potatoes or meat with a lot of herbs, it’s better to use a powerful olive oil, as the taste combines with and makes it really special.
And what we should look for as a consumer when we taste and smell olive oil?
That’s very difficult. A lot of consumers who don’t like olive oil just haven’t tasted the really good stuff. But it must be extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) on the label, and the price is also something to go by. EVOO can’t be cheap, it’s impossible. If you know how it’s made and how carefully every step of the process is done, then you understand that it needs to cost quite a lot. So if you are in front of the shelf and you have to make a decision, the best option would be to take the expensive one. Also, beware of clever marketing tricks. I think in Holland they use sentences like ‘mild olive oil,’ which people like the sound of because they think it’s healthy, but it’s refined and not extra virgin olive oil at all.
A lot of consumers who don’t like olive oil just haven’t tasted the really good stuff.
How do you taste olive oil?
It’s pretty simple. I take a glass, put olive oil in it, warm it up (because 28 degrees is the best temperature to taste olive oil), keep it for a couple of minutes, and then I smell and i taste. I taste a couple of olive oils per day from all over the world, because it’s impossible to be a sommelier or professional taster if you don’t taste many times. It’s the same as with wine.
And the colour doesn’t mean anything, right? That’s why you are tasting from blue cups?
Yes exactly, color doesn’t say anything about the quality, but your brain leads you to think if the oil is green then it’s good quality. So to keep that influence out, we use dark blue or red glasses.
You mentioned in your book that olive oil is the most faked product in the world. Could you comment on that?
Yes, it’s because there are thousands of products that include olive oil or are made with a combination of olive oil, diluted with less good ingredients. For instance, if you buy a jar of artichokes or roasted peppers preserved in olive oil, you need thousands of litres of oil for this. The buyers of the end product don’t taste the olive oil itself. They receive the finished product from the supplier and they don’t know what the taste should be, so they just buy it and use that refined olive oil.
I think Italy is probably the worst culprit for producing fake olive oil. It’s crazy, but it is true – for example, Italy produces 460,000 tons of olive oil annually, but Italian people consume 600,000 tons of olive oil, and they export 900,000 tons, so the figures just don’t add up. There are a lot of ships with oil coming from everywhere, and it’s bottled in Italy and blended in Italy and sold as an Italian brand for 10 times its worth. Italian companies know how to do marketing. I think everybody knows that it’s happening.
Being an olive oil sommelier is quite a rare profession. How would you like to educate the general public and what would you like to change?
As you know I’m quite busy training people who want to know more, but I’m also focused on teaching young people who are in cooking schools. This is where it all starts – with the people who work with food and learn a combination of taste and olive oil. By getting chefs behind our cause, I think we can start to be heard more.
Are there better olive species than others? Like with grapes?
You would think so, wouldn’t you? But actually you can make a great oil with almost all olives. It’s really all down to the soil, the care for the trees and the process.
What is the best oil you’ve ever had? Do you have any favourites?
The best olive oil I’ve ever tasted is the Castillo de Canena from Spain. This has been awarded by Flos Olei many, many times, and it really is something special. My personal favourite is my own developed olive oil “Pasta & Pizza”. I use this not only for my pasta but for all fried vegetables and of course in combination with hawaii salt and ice cream.
There are a lot of ships with oil coming from everywhere, and it’s bottled in Italy and blended in Italy and sold as an Italian brand for 10 times its worth.
And tell us about the Olive Oil Institute you’ve set up in the Netherlands?
Since I realized that so many bad olive oils are on the shelves, I wanted to start a panel in the Netherlands. EVOO needs a laboratory test and a panel test, with between 8 and 12 tasters who all have to recognize it as an extra virgin olive oil in order to get certified. The Netherlands doesn’t have these panels in place, so there is not much control over what is put on the shelf. I’ve organized a panel for a couple of years, and finally last year the government was willing to introduce me to the European Commission and they introduced me to the IOC – the International Council in Madrid. Now I work with two very smart young men who have a laboratory and an electronic nose. We have a new company which is called Olive Oil Institute, and we are going to give quality marks to olive oils. We want to give opportunities to small producers who have a quality mark to give them channels to enter the market and most important: the consumer knows it’s the real stuff if the quality mark is on the bottle.
You have mentioned an electronic nose, can it replace a human nose?
The human nose teaches the electronic nose, that’s the way it works. The two guys from the laboratory I work with developed the electronic nose for the wine business, and have been doing it for quite some years. We met each other in 2019 and I was very intrigued by what they do with wine: they can find so many aspects in the product that can be hard to detect. So now they have adapted the electronic nose that can work with olive oil too. So if you send olive oil to us, we will use the electronic nose first and then we can immediately get rid of any oil that is defective, so the panel only spend time assessing the good stuff. As far as I know, we are the only ones in the world who have this facility.