To recap: I’ve been reading from The Best Food Writing Collections edited by Holly Huges. In the 2013 edition an article called Olive and Lives by Tom Mueller really caught my attention. Mueller introduces us to the De Carlo family, who have been making olive oil in Italy for the last four centuries. The De Carlos are horrified by the fact that most olive oil now produced is absolute garbage. This article, along with others, and a number of recipes that that call for high end “quality” ingredients, got me wondering. Do quality ingredients really matter? Can you really taste the difference? In some cases it’s obvious. We can all tell the difference between fresh fruits and canned for example. But what about other ingredients like butter, olive oil, or tomatoes? I’ve been testing to find out for myself.
Today, olive oil.
Of course I had to try some of the De Carlo families olive oil. They made a pretty big statement in that article I mentioned, “Because once someone tries a real extra virgin- an adult or a child, anybody with taste buds- they’ll never go back to the fake kind. It’s distinctive, complex, the freshest thing you’ve ever eaten. It makes you realize how rotten the other stuff is, literally rotten.” I had to see if that was really true!
De Carlo oil was hard for me to track down. I tried my local grocery store and while they had a lot of olive oil choices De Carlo wasn’t among them. I tried an specialty Italian imports store, which actually turned out to be quite disappointing! No olive oil at all! I also checked World Market on the off hand chance… what I actually finally had to do was order it online. De Carlo is actually available at amazon and I also found a specialty store in NY who ships for online customers. I found that De Carlo oil is quite expensive compared to any options available to me locally. I ended up with their Olio Extra Vergine Di Oliva (extra virgin olive oil).
I decided to select my other two oils from the grocery store. I chose a Bertolli Extra Light Tasting Olive Oil and a Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil because I see a lot of this brand in the grocery store and it obviously sounded Italian. I found later after a little research that Bertolli did in fact originate in Italy, as an olive oil brand, founded in 1865. They are one of the biggest international brands in olive oil. However, the company was purchased by Unilever the third largest consumer goods company in the world. They own over 400 brands. So it’s not exactly a family owned company at this point. I spent a little time researching but I could’t actually confirm that the oil was still produced in Italy under Unilever’s ownership, though it seemed to be implied. Interestingly enough Bertolli was part of the controversy in 2010 surrounding olive oil mentioned in the article Oil and Lives. Bertolli’s (and others) oil was being fraudulently mislabeled as extra virgin when it was in fact not meeting those standards.
I also chose the local grocery store brand, Kroger Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The Kroger oils manufacture information states, “Pure. All natural. Cold pressed. Imported. Packed in Italy with oils of (A) Italy, (B) Spain, (C) Greece, (D) Tunisia.” I really didn’t find much information to confirm Kroger’s production claims via the internet. But neither did I see anything that seemed to indicate they were part of the mislabeling controversy. I should also mention that I purchased a bottle of regular Kroger olive oil in addition to the extra virgin olive oil.
Here’s what I found:
- All the oils really do taste and look different.
- I can tell the difference between extra virgin oil vs. extra light tasting oil vs. regular olive oil, both by visual and flavor.
- The color of each type of oil is a little different. Extra virgin for example gennerally seems to have a slight greenish cast.
- The flavors are quite different going from extra virgin to regular olive oil to tasting oil.
- The flavors are also a little bit different from brand to brand. I found Di Carlo to be mild and pleasant, but sometimes disappear into the other flavors in a dish. Bertolli was the most assertive. Kroger’s extra virgin had a fine flavor but neither does it stand out in my mind.
- Actually all the oils tasted fine to me with one exception: the Kroger regular olive oil. This oil was… bitter. Maybe even spoiled. Everything I used the oil on ended up tainted with this flavor. When I used it for bread dipping it was quite overt. When I cooked with it it was more of an aftertaste. But is was distinct and it was yucky! I might have just ended up with a bad bottle because the extra virgin was fine.
My final conclusion is that quality does matter here, sort of. Bad oil makes everything taste nasty. The De Carlo family truly was right about that. I’m pretty sure most people will be able to taste this one. For me it was distinct. Beyond that I think quality probably matters in carrying degrees depending on what your going to do with it, how sensitive your taste buds are, and how much you want to pay for it. Higher cost oils do have a different flavor. But lower cost oils aren’t necessarily bad either. If you can afford high end oil without busting the budget go for it. But if you can’t, don’t worry that your food will be inferior because you used a lower cost oil.
I personally don’t think I would spring for De Carlo oil for most uses. It’s just too expensive. But for special occasions, or very simple preparations I might buy a bottle. Despite Bertolli’s part in the olive oil scandals a few years back, I felt like their product was pretty decent. Kroger’s oil makes me a little nervous now after that terrible bottle. I think my personal solution will be to generally stick with mid cost oils. I think it’s probably worth tasting other brands as well, until I find my personal preference. And honestly that’s what I would recommend for anyone else. Taste, taste, taste. Don’t be afraid of lower price tags, but don’t be too cheap and you’ll probably end up pretty happy.