Remember my little anti-Tuscan olive oil rant from a few days back? Actually it wasn’t so much a rant as a statement of opinion. Well when I wrote that I was forgetting that my mother-in-law is going to be shelling out some big dollars for a trip to Tuscany this summer (the centerpiece of which will presumably be Tuscany’s famous olive growing regions). And while I can’t say she was upset about the post per se, she did take some preemptory offense to what is about to become one of her culinary passions: Tuscan olive oils. Having spent more than a little time in Provence, she also came to the defense of French olive oils (which she also seems to believe I slighted) and to the oils of California. Add all that up and it looks like I’m in Dutch with the in-laws. Well, it’s not the first time and it certainly won’t be the last (which is why my home office has a couch).
In my own defense I’d like to say that I didn’t cast aspersions at the French or California olive oil industries…such as they are. And I say that because both of those places barely have olive oil industries at all, especially compared to big boy producers around the Mediterranean. In fact when you consider that the output of the major olive oil producing nations is measured in the hundreds of millions of gallons, the output of America (for which California accounts for 99% of the total output) and France can be measured in the hundreds of thousands, only a tiny fraction of which shows up as the gourmet extra-virgin oil we see on store shelves (the vast majority is industrial-grade). Together France and California produce something on the order of two-tenths of one percent of the world crop.
But then if there is so little actual olive oil grown in those areas (especially California) how is it possible to find so much French (or American) olive oil in specialty stores? (In fact on a recent trip to Whole Foods I found three different French oils and several American, which together made up a sizeable chunk of the total selection). The answer, because much of the oil that “comes” from America and France isn’t actually produced there. It’s Spanish or Greek or Italian or Turkish oil that’s been shipped there, blended there and packaged in new bottles. But then it’s not just Americans or the French that do this. Italians have been repackaging olive oil for decades, most of it imported from Spain (the world’s biggest olive oil producer), in bottles that say “Imported from Italy”. Often these oils are elaborate blends, a virtual United Nations effort of whatever is cheapest/most available at the time. There’s no law against it, since, well, the olive oil is in fact being “imported” from Italy. It was just made somewhere else (that is, unless it’s labeled with Italy’s “D.O.C.” controlled origin assurance stamp, which the very expensive Tuscan oils usually are).
So you see you can’t always tell what you’re getting when you buy a bottle of olive oil. You might think you like Italian (or French or Californian) olive oil when in fact what you’re drizzling on your baby greens is pure Tunisia. So just like anything it pays to know what your sources are. Who knows? I’ve been complaining about grassy Tuscan olive oils all this time, when it’s entirely possible the stuff was sampling was Portuguese. Better go read those bottles again…especially before my mother-in-law gets here tomorrow.