Back Olive It! III. Extra Virgin

Part 1 of 3 oxymoron noun ox·y·mo·ron | \ ˌäk-si-ˈmȯr-ˌän , -sē- \ Definition of oxymoron : a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (such as cruel kindness) broadly : something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements.

What does extra virgin mean?? This question is asked more frequently at the tasting bar, on tours and in seminars than any other. Frankly I must answer; “I truly do not know.” From a purely etymological aspect it does not have any meaning and from the many different definitions and interpretations by the plethora of organizations in the industry it becomes nothing but confusing. Before I get on my high horse and dive into this topic, which will be broken up into three parts, I would like to give a little perspective.

Since we started this company almost 20 years ago, we have seen the industry as a whole make huge strides to deal with adulteration and quality.

Research and technological improvements worldwide have helped but it has been the heightened consumer awareness that is really driving the efforts.

As a company we are constantly looking for ways to improve the flavor and health benefits of our products. With all this progress I think that there is a disconnect between the industry and the consumer.

Who ever heard of an extra virgin??? This is a completely made up and confusing name.

Just like “cold pressed” and “first press” I argue that extra virgin is simply another confusing marketing term.

Let’s dig in a bit.

First a little history of which we will go into greater detail in another post.

Now if we look back in time, the terminology was simple and meaningful.

Throughout history olive oil has been a valuable commodity and the temptation and reward for adulteration were great.

As the olive oil trade spread, assurances of purity and quality became an important component of the trade.

Producers wanted to assure their customers that they were getting the best product.

In order to clarify the differences, the terminology was simple and meaningful, Virgin olive oil meant the olive oil made from the fruit with no other additives.

A pure unadulterated product extracted with no heat.

This was the most expensive and desirable product. Oil of less desirable quality not suitable for the table was called lampante, oil for the lamp. As technology progressed there were greater and greater differences in styles and flavors. Efforts were made to try to quantify these differences. In 1960 the International Olive Council in a well-intentioned effort, developed a set of parameters and definitions for the olive oil trade.

Since the term virgin olive oil was widespread, the arbiters of good taste on the council made up a term to identify what should be considered an oil of higher quality than the run of the mill virgin olive oil.

Keep in mind the term virgin olive oil was not meant to be as much of a statement of quality as a statement of purity.

There were certain chemistry parameters associated with these different grades of olive oil, the most important was acidity level. This is relatively easy to measure and seemed to be a good demarcation point.

Any oil below 1% was extra virgin, anything above was relegated to the now lower virgin olive oil.

There is even a designation known as ordinary virgin olive oil. Most of the other chemistry focuses mainly on adulteration and in our next discussion we will explore the current standards of chemistry and sensory evaluation.

In the third part we will talk about what in my experience we should be looking for as we choose the best olive oils. So, to conclude the first part of my rant, we need to make things clearer and simpler for people to choose the correct olive oil for their taste and usage.

Let’s get rid of confusing and meaningless terminology and elevate virgin back where it belongs as a term of purity, plain and simple! Next week: They are certifiable. Slainte! Thom