So what is the big deal about Extra Virgin Olive Oil and why only Extra Virgin? It is simply the only grade of olive oil that speaks. It expresses its olive variety and the age of the trees, the ground underneath and its irrigation. It provides clues about harvesting techniques and the care of the olives before milling. You can detect the miller’s dedication and artistry, faint notes touching on the land, the region, the country of origin and the centuries of tradition and know-how behind it.  There are clearly strong parallels between Extra Virgin and wine. 

The average North American’s understanding of Olive Oil has been compared to what was their knowledge of wine 20 or 30 years ago. Despite our well-developed “foodie” culture, olive oil is not a fundamental part of our lives as it is in the Mediterranean. This is a pity, especially when we look at the health benefits that are obtained from following a traditional Mediterranean diet.

So let’s cut to the chase: what are the essentials that you need to know before you buy your next bottle? 

Make sure your oil is in a dark glass bottle or tin. Clear glass or plastic speeds up the rancidity process. 

Make sure it is EXTRA Virgin. No other category of olive oil (or seed oil for that matter) contains the same health benefits as Extra Virgin.  

Don’t worry about terms like cold-pressed and first-pressed; they are redundant as all Extra Virgin oils are produced with those techniques. 

Make sure there is a best-before date, or even better a harvest date. Unlike wine, olive oil does NOT improve with age.

Make sure there is information indicating origin and the more information, the better. Would you buy a bottle of wine if the label just said “Wine. Made in Canada”? No? Well, the same should apply for Extra Virgin. 

Make sure you are buying from a reputable retailer that understands how oils should be stored. If a product looks like it has been on the shelf for a while… give it a pass.

Look at the price. No matter what the label says, quality Extra Virgin cannot be found in Canada at $4 per liter.  When you need at least 5 kilos of healthy ripe olives to make 1 liter of Extra Virgin… cheap price means low quality.

So, now you have got your Extra Virgin home from the store. What do you do? Always remember that the longevity of your oil is linked strictly to how it is stored. Do not leave your bottles on the kitchen counter beside the stove or cook top. Your pantry or any dark place that stays below 21degrees C is best. Once you have opened up the bottle, you have about three to four months to use it before it goes rancid and yes, even the best oils will eventually go bad. 

The general rule is that delicate oils go with delicate dishes and robust oils go with robust dishes. Like with wine, to really be a pro with food and oil pairing requires a certain intimacy and understanding of the oil. So how do you get that? Taste it! 

1. Pour a small amount of EVOO into a glass or plastic cup. 

2. Cup the glass in the palm of one hand while covering it with the other. Rotate the glass, slightly tilted, in your palm for about two minutes, warming the contents and release the aromas. 

Bring the cup to your nose and inhale. You may be able to immediately identify particular notes at this point. 

4. Take a small amount of oil into your mouth. With lips parted and without swallowing, take three or four quick sucks of air through closed teeth. Don’t be embarrassed to make noise. This action vaporizes the aroma molecules sending the oil flavours back through your nose. 

Finally, swallow and take note of the sensation on the tongue and the back of your throat. 

What can you expect to get out of your oil tasting? The first thing you will taste or rather “feel” is that fresh Extra Virgin is peppery. Burn-the-back-of-your-throat, eye-tearing and cough-inducing peppery! This is considered a positive trait – the pepperiness is an indicator of the polyphenols or antioxidants in the oil.  What else? All good quality Extra Virgin oils will have varying degrees of fruitiness and bitterness, both considered positive traits. The fruitiness can be then categorized with different descriptors like artichoke, grass, green or ripe tomato, herbs, green banana, almond or apple. It is the unique combination of these traits that will guide you in your food and oil pairing. Just as in the wine world, one Extra Virgin does not fit all. 

Being a foodie paradise, the Okanagan now has a number of places where you can find good quality EVOO: Okanagan Grocery, Nature’s Fare, Abby’s Spice and Tea, Mission Hill Wine Shop and DeBakker’s Kitchen as well as restaurants and chefs who are committed to serving the best like RauDZ Regional Table, Waterfront Wines, The Terrace at Mission Hill, Summerhill Winery and Miradoro at Tinhorn Creek.  Enjoy! 

~ Teresa Kuhn