By Suzanne Deveney, Foodable Contributor
Olive oil is well-known for its health benefits. Studies show that, in addition to boosting the immune system, a diet that contains moderate amounts of olive oil may help prevent strokes, reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, and can help in the fight against cancer and heart disease.
But what if what you’re purchasing isn’t really olive oil? A recent Forbes article suggests that what you find on store shelves may be less than pure. It may be mixed with other, less expensive oils or contain colorants.
To further complicate the issue, standing in front of the olive oil section of the grocery store can be overwhelming and confusing. Shelves are stocked with bottles that read “organic,” “first press,” and “extra virgin.” Most come from Spain or Italy in clear or darker bottles in tall, short, and somewhere-in-between sizes. And there are metal tins that look like they would last the average cook for a very, very long time. But what exactly does all that mean? And does it really matter?
Indeed it does, according to Karen Rose, owner of City Olive in Chicago.
“There are misunderstandings and miscommunications about olive oil, including the benefits,” said Rose.
After traveling through Mediterranean countries to research olive oil production, and learning more about its benefits, Rose — a nurse by trade — transitioned her health background into something different. “I realized how little was known about real olive oil and its benefits. At the time, your basic grocery store olive oil was all that was available. I wanted other people to know what I had learned.” In 2007, she opened City Olive in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood.
Estate-Bottled Olive Oil
City Olive only carries estate-bottled olive oil, and Rose personally reaches out to producers. She finds them from various sources, and keeps an eye on worldwide competitions. After discovering an olive oil she wants to carry, she sends an email, “hoping we can communicate in a common language, which for me is English.” Through these communications, she finds out if there’s a local importer. From there, she stocks her shelves with the limited quantities sometimes available.
Bottling is a streamlined process for reputable mills; they bottle on demand of importers so it’s contained. “One of the most rewarding parts of City Olive is to have many of the producers visit the store from around the world and overwhelmingly support our mission to educate consumers about olive oil and its benefits,” she says.
At any one time, City Olive carries several oils listed in the Top 20 in the world, and typically there are oils from ten or 11 different countries represented on the shelves. In addition to Italy and Spain, countries may include Morocco, Uruguay, France, Portugal, and South Africa. “There are distinct regional flavors between countries, depending on varietal and harvest time. In the US, California has made huge progress, setting a trail just as they did with wine.”
Like Fine Wine
A conversation with Rose is akin to talking to a sommelier about wine. In fact, more than one line can be drawn from the way both are produced. “Producing olive oil is just like producing fine wine. From the moment you’re harvesting the tree, picking the olive when it’s perfect, getting it to the mill in a very timely fashion, on to the bottling and delivery process,” says Rose.
“The harvest is the harvest. It doesn’t continue all year long. The yield for the year is just like that for wine: once it’s done, you wait for the next batch,” she says. It’s also why her inventory changes frequently. And just like wine, the bottles and labels are just as beautiful as what’s inside, and are unique to every producer.
Keeping it Fresh
“The enemies of olive oil are heat, sunlight, and air,” says Rose. “I can’t tell you the number of stores where I see olive oil in or near the front window, in lots of light. Many home cooks keep their oil right by the stove, but that exposes it to heat. It’s the natural inclination to want to grab it quickly while cooking, but heat will destroy it.”
Just like when cooking with wine, you should cook with the very best olive oil possible. And once you open a bottle of this liquid gold? “Use it,” she says emphatically. “You always want the freshest available. Something that is not 100% olive oil or rancid will affect the quality of your food.” Luckily, most of these oils come in smaller quantities than typical grocery store varieties.
Proof is in the Tasting
If you think you know what olive oil tastes like, you’ve never experienced the palate-tingling richness of an estate-bottled oil. You can forget the stuff you’ve been purchasing at the grocery store; this is the real deal. And City Olive is more than willing to give you a taste before you buy.
Tastings are done by pouring a small quantity onto a white spoon, so you not only see the color, you can really taste the oil. “Often, you’ll see tastings done with a piece of bread, which can really change or mask the flavor of the oil. We want you to experience everything about the oil in in purest form,” she says.
City Olive customers range from local chefs who want to taste the oils, to professional caterers, and the well-educated “foodie,” and from the novice cook to the health conscious consumer. “We have customers who come in knowing exactly what they want because they’ve done the research. For instance, they’ll ask for a 2013 harvest,” Rose says. “And we have people who are just learning about the differences in estate-bottled oils or want to include more in their diet for the health benefits.”
Rose and her staff can fulfill most requests or suggest alternatives. City Olive staff is trained to know as much about current inventory as Rose does: the year, taste, grower, region, and the varietal. And they can make recommendations based on food choices. “The oil you would use to finish pasta isn’t the same as you would use on fish or to pour over a tomato salad.”
Be warned, however: A trip to City Olive will make you yearn for that perfect, first-of-the-season, vine-ripened tomato. Summer can’t come soon enough.
City Olive has locations in the Andersonville and Roscoe Village neighborhoods in Chicago. Visit the website www.cityolive.com for exact locations and times.