There are many reports circulating the Web these days about fake or counterfeit olive oil, as if this is a new phenomenon. I want to clarify that it is not. Back in the turn of the last century, this problem existed, and I guarantee it existed long before that. My great-grandfather imported products from Italy in his store back then, and he encountered the same problem. Keep in mind that “extra virgin” olive oil is a fairly new term–created in the 1960s, and that prior to that, olive oil had been created for thousands of years in the Mediterranean using ancient methods without that designation. What happened in the 1960s to inspire this change? New technology, of course. An expensive stainless steel milling technique. Some people believe that in order to counteract costs of this new technology, some producers skimp and add inferior quality oil like soy, canola or nut oils to the olive oil. This may be true, but as I mentioned before, cheap, inferior, fake, counterfeit olive oil was around before extra virgin came into being.
One consistency amongst these recent articles is the touting of California olive oil as a sure bet to the real thing. This pronouncement makes me suspect of these articles–are they a California olive oil industry marketing ploy? I don’t know. (A Google trending search reveals that California is the only state where this topic is a regional interest.)
Modern chefs and food writers tout olive oil from the North of Italy as being superior in taste. However, Southern Italy, especially the southeastern region called Puglia (Italy’s heel), has had a long history of olive oil production dating back to ancient times. Before the unification of Italy in 1860, when Southern Italy was under the Bourbon empire, olive oil production in this area was at its peak with the most advanced technology to produce olive oil. And even today, superior olive oils come from Southern Italy. (And let’s also not forget the olive oils of Greece.)
There is “counterfeit” olive oil on the market, and I suspect there will be more counterfeiting to come with the report of poor olive harvests recently.
How do you tell if olive oil is real or not? I’ve tried the test of seeing if it hardens in the refrigerator, and I have to report that the better quality and better tasting olive oils do. I would say a good indicator is price–better oils will most likely be more expensive. Many of these articles also claim that “authentic” olive oil has a peppery taste. I was always taught that good quality olive oil has a taste like artichoke. In the past, I, and my family, remember olive oil having a golden color as opposed to the greenish hue seen with most olive oils today.
In short, I’m still keeping my faith in Italian and Greek olive oil.