Liquid Gold

Words vicki Ravlich-Horan, Images Ashlee DeCaires

Liquid gold – this description for olive oil is becoming more and more accurate every year. Prices of olive oil have skyrocketed in the last few years. Donald Montes from Taste of Greece has seen a 120% increase in prices in just one year. Increasing demand and falling production has predictably lead to price increases, not to mention the rise of dubious practices when it comes to the labelling of this sought after culinary staple.

We consider olive oil a staple, but it’s a reasonably new food for New Zealanders. In her day my nana had to buy her olive oil from a chemist! And while it is commonplace now and can be found on every supermarket shelf, does this lack of tradition and understanding of the product mean we lack a real understanding of olive oil, its benefits, uses and what we’re really paying for?

To find out more we spoke to Liz and Anna from Vetro, who sells a range of different olive oils from both the Mediterranean and New Zealand, along with Nathan Casey from Village Press in the Hawkes Bay, Gino Cuccurullo from Medifoods and Donald Montes from Taste of Greece.

Not all olive oils are equal. While country of origin and variety of olive is important to some, and we will come to that, it’s more important to understand the difference between an extra virgin olive oil and the plethora of other types of olive oil.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)

This is the highest quality and purest form of olive oil. It is made from the first pressing of olives and most crucially is free from any chemical processing. EVOO has a low acidity level (usually below 0.8%) and a gorgeous flavour, ranging from peppery to grassy, fruity to nutty. It is commonly used for dressing salads, drizzling over cooked vegetables, and dipping bread.

Virgin Olive Oil

Rarely seen in New Zealand, this type of olive oil is also derived from the first pressing of olives but has a slightly higher acidity level (up to 2%). Virgin olive oil has a milder flavour compared to EVOO and is frequently used for cooking and sautéing.

Olive Oil

Sometimes referred to as ‘pure’ olive oil, this is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil. Refined olive oil has been processed using heat or chemicals. Olive oil has a neutral taste and a slightly higher smoke point compared to virgin olive oil, making it suitable for various cooking methods, such as frying and baking.

Light Olive Oil

Despite its name, ‘light’ olive oil is not lower in calories or fat. It simply means that the oil has a lighter flavour and colour. Like pure olive oil, light olive oil is a blend of refined olive oil and EVOO or virgin olive oil and is good for recipes where a milder taste is desired or when cooking at higher temperatures.

Olive Pomace Oil

Sitting at the bottom of the hierarchy of olive oil grades, olive pomace oil is produced from the byproducts of the virgin and extra virgin olive oil production process. Around 5–8% of the oil remains in the olive pulp after pressing and extraction for extra virgin and virgin oils. To release this oil chemical solvents and heat are used in similar ways canola oil is extracted. The result is an oil useful for cooking but in no way has the benefits of an extra virgin olive oil.

Donald says ‘pure’ and ‘light’ are not labels that exist for olive oil in Europe. This is because when they want to use an olive oil it is for its flavour as much as it is for the oil’s properties. Gino laments, “Imagine Caprese salad with canola oil. Life would never be the same.” I hasten to add the same gorgeous salad would be ruined by a drizzle of olive pomace or light olive oil too. Which brings us to the question – when is olive oil the right oil?

For me the benefits of an olive oil over others are the health benefits and the flavour.  This means I am likely to only buy extra virgin olive oil and would use this in salad dressings, as a dip for bread, drizzled over grilled vegetables, a soup, pizza. I won’t use extra virgin olive oil in an aioli, as its flavour overpowers the mayonnaise, but I love it in the lemon cakes, as it adds a lovely herbaceous note. I may use extra virgin olive oil when searing a steak, but I do so out of convenience as the heat will ruin the flavour of the oil. It’s convenient as I avoid oils that have had heat treatment or solvents used in their production which is also why you won’t find any other form of olive oil in my pantry other than extra virgin.

Taste

As we’ve already established, other than extra virgin, all other olive oils on the New Zealand market have little flavour. For this reason, if taste is what you are after, extra virgin olive oil is your only choice.

The flavours of extra virgin olive oil will vary depending on a number of factors, including the type of olives used, the region they come from, the ripeness of the olives, and the production methods employed.

Liz from Vetro Tauranga says, “We always sell a range of extra virgin olive oils so that people can find the flavour they like.”  Liz is currently loving the Iliada Greek oils. “I find them so smooth and flavourful. My favourite at the moment is the Early Harvest but that’s a special treat just for bread dipping and pouring over plain rice or pasta so the flavour is the star. I also use the Iliada gold tins for my dipping and pouring. I love extra virgin olive oil over my salads directly with a sprinkle of Maldon salt and an aged balsamic. No need to make it into a dressing. I just pour.”  Liz also says, “I use one of our 3lt Il Podere or Mancini for my ‘everyday’ things like roasting veg, making a pesto, or a big slow cooked eggplant caponata style dish I make a lot in summer when eggplants are cheap. I always have a pot in the fridge. I love the stuff but it needs lots of olive oil.

Anna from Vetro Hamilton says, “At home, we have at least three olive oil pourers by our cooktop, each filled with a different olive oil and each used for different purposes. I love the peppery finish of our range of Greek extra virgin olive oils, and I never make a salad dressing (a hangover from when our children were young and refused any form of dressing on their veggies and salads), instead I drizzle with a Greek EVO and a well-aged balsamic vinegar or fruity balsamic glaze. We use pomace for roasting and deep frying, as it has a high tolerance to heat and virtually no flavour. A chilli-infused oil seldom goes astray in our house – it’s a lovely, healthy alternative to sweet chilli sauce and goes perfectly with pierogi and caramalised onion.”

Quality & Authenticity

When it comes to olive oil these two things are intertwined.  With weather patterns changing in traditional olive regions resulting in falling production, countries like Tunisia are filling the gap. While Tunisia, like New Zealand, Australia and California, may be able to produce beautiful olive oils, it is unregulated and thus open to them producing quantity over quality.

The world of olive oil production in Europe is already rife with grim mafia practices and country of origin labelling often being fudged. This is why it is essential to buy from reputable companies and look for a seal or certification like a PDO.

Donald says, “I guarantee you not a single imported olive oil in a New Zealand supermarket is 100% extra virgin olive oil.” He can make this claim based on the sheer price so called extra virgin olive oil is sold at your local supermarket considering world demand and the cost to ship the oil to New Zealand.

New Zealand company Village Press have also been grappling with falling production and the cyclones in early 2023 played havoc with the harvest. For this reason Village Press added a small amount of oil from Europe to their traditionally 100% New Zealand oil. But to put this in context, Italy, the world’s second largest producer of olive oil now imports more olive oil from Spain than it produces.

Liz says, “At the moment we are just trying to keep some good quality oils, from reputable suppliers, in stock and at a reasonable price.” So if you are looking for a delicious, healthy extra virgin olive oil head in to your local Vetro to discover the one that is right for you.

A few facts

An olive tree can live up to 2000 years.

Only 10% of olive oil consumed in New Zealand is produced here.

Spain is the largest producer of olive oil.

Greece is the largest consumer of olive oil.

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