May it Please the Palate- Olive Oil Scandal Revealed

Italian olive oil has a scandalous past, and I am here to expose it. Pure, extra-virgin olive oil is valuable stuff, and crooks have often tried to make a fast buck by passing off junk as the real thing. Through the years, olives from many other countries have been juiced, bottled and sold as Italian. The fraud became more sophisticated when a 2008 crime ring was busted and tens of thousands of bottles of purported Italian extra virgin olive oil turned out to be made of genetically modified sunflower or soya oil, with shady additives. Things came to a head in 2011, when investigators puzzled over why Italy was importing twice as much olive oil as it was exporting. That's because unscrupulous producers were rebottling cheap stuff from other countries as real, extra-virgin Italian olive oil. How can they get away with this? Doesn't everyone know that Italian olive oil is the best in the world? Recently, "Cook's Illustrated" busted another dirty little secret: It's not. In a recent taste test, that was found not to be the case. Italian olive oil is too bitter. Says Paul Vossen, an IOCC-certified olive oil taster, of the University of California Cooperative Extension in Sonoma: "Tuscany has frost problems, or potential frost problems, so their law requires that they harvest their olives early - by a certain date - and that means they have a green olive oil that is bitter and pungent. So the Italians just convinced the world that's how extra-virgin olive oil is supposed to taste. It's marketing." Wow. All this time I thought there was something wrong with me because I thought the expensive Italian olive oils, for example those that are featured at Zingerman's Delicatessen for sampling, were simply too bitter to enjoy. I secretly preferred the fruitier Greek and Spanish olive oils, but I kept this to myself because I didn't want all the other lawyer food columnists laughing at me at our lavish seminars. "You think Italian olive oil is too bitter?" they'd laugh, spilling their champagne and caviar. Elbowing each other knowingly, they'd add: "What do you have for breakfast--Pop Tarts?! Snort, chuckle and chortle! Why, you just don't appreciate fine olive oil!" Darrell Corti agrees with me. The owner of Corti Brothers store in Sacramento, and chairman of olive oil judging at the Los Angeles County Fair - the top international olive oil competition in the United States, Corti said, "Americans have been told they should like very bitter oils, but they really don't like them. The Tuscan oils are bitter." Maybe that's why Italian olive oils have been relatively easy to copy in the laboratory. You can't do that, for example, with Terra Medi Greek extra virgin olive oil, one of the top three in "Cook's Illustrated's" taste test. Made from a single varietal, the Koroneiki olive, it won raves as being "Rich, olive-y, delicious; complex, rich, without being bitter; slightly peppery, buttery." Best of all? It's only $12 for a 17 oz. bottle at Hiller's Markets. Also praised were two Spanish extra virgin oils, including the Columela (about $29 a liter) for its "bold, slightly fruity flavor," and the Nuñez de Prado Organic (about $56 a liter) for its taste of "Olives, grass, herbs, rich, not much bite: Perfect!" So my household has moved to the Terra Medi for salads and drizzling; and for cooking, I will use the bulk Spanish olive oil from Sparrow Market in Ann Arbor (about $12 a quart) or the very good Martini's extra virgin Kalamata olive oil from Trader Joe's. Nothing compares to the oil straight from the source, however. My cousin in Kalamata has his own olive grove and makes his own oil. He even starts his day with a small glass to drink. I once brought home several liters through customs, in assorted containers - including a 2 liter Coca Cola bottle. I also love my cousin's fat, juicy Kalamata olives, marinated in that same delicious, fruity olive oil - never in water and vinegar as are most olives are sold in the U.S. You don't see Greek olive oil scandals because you just can't fake the good stuff. Vindicated by "Cook's Illustrated" and its olive oil experts, I can now go to all my lawyer-food columnist soirees with my head held high, knowingly tipping a glass of Kalamata juice to the envious crowd, as they bitterly choke down their Italian oil. Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at Published: Thu, May 9, 2013