Interview with Olive Oil Sommelier Elena Lepori
It’s easy to be cynical about Italian olive oil.
Over the past few years, especially following Tom Mueller’s 2011 bestseller, Extra Virginity: The Sublime & Scandalous World of Olive Oil, mainstream media in Canada, the US and the UK have all reported on widespread shady practices in the industry.
There are many variations on the story but the crux is that very often, mass-produced commercial blends labeled “extra virgin olive oil” (EVOO) don’t fully adhere to the International Olive Council definition of the term.
Sometimes the EVOO is cut with lower grades of domestic or imported olive oil, or with cheaper oils like soybean or canola. At times the oil goes rancid from heat or time lags between harvesting and processing. Whatever the cause, defects of colour, taste or odour can be artificially corrected through chemical refinement – far more cheaply, it turns out, than simply producing genuine extra virgin olive oil in the first place.
But that’s only half the story – the “scandalous” part about greed, corruption and deceit that predictably grabs headlines.
BEST EVOOs IN HISTORY
The other part, less sensational but more meaningful for those who are truly interested in olive oil, is about the passion, commitment and ingenuity of artisanal EVOO producers in every region of Italy who are not only upholding traditional standards but using modern methods to improve on them.
Writing in the New Yorker in 2012, Mueller said that “new milling technologies—stainless steel mills, high-speed centrifuges, temperature- and oxygen-controlled storage tanks—are making it possible to produce the best extra-virgin olive oils in history: fresh, complex, and every bit as varied as wine varietals.”
Elena Lepori, olive oil sommelier and owner of Lugano Fine Foods, was attending a traditional Sicilian food fair in Palermo, in 2004, when she stumbled upon this world for the first time. It was there that she met Silvia and Giuseppe di Vincenzo of Azienda Agricola Mandranova, a family-run estate in the province of Agrigento, on the southwestern shore of the island.
“It was my first time in Sicily, and I discovered this land of incredible goodness,” says Lepori. “I tasted many different products during that week at the fair, but kept coming back to Mandranova. I had never tasted anything like their olive oils before, and I was so taken by their amazing passion for what they do.”
She struck up a friendship with the di Vincenzos, who (in true Southern Italian style) invited her to stay with them when she returned a year later, this time to learn everything she could about EVOO.
“Silvia really guided me at first. We cooked together and went to tastings. She taught me how true olive oil was produced and what to look for.”
One of the first things Lepori learned was the importance and staggering diversity of olive varietals. There are more than 600 varietals in Italy alone, each with its unique characteristics, and olive oil is produced in every one of the country’s 20 regions.
Mandranova is known for its monocultivars like Nocellara del Belice, Cerasuola and Biancolilla. In other areas, like Sicily’s northwest coast, those same varietals are combined to create DOPs like Titone Valli Trapanesi, a typical blend from that region.
Another important lesson was the importance of bitterness (“pleasant acridity” on the tongue) and pungency (pepper sensation in the mouth and throat), flavours that signify the presence of healthy antioxidant polyphenols.
“Olives should be harvested when they are ‘solamente invaiata’ – still green, still attached to the tree, with just the tip of the fruit beginning to change colour. If they are left to fully mature they completely oxidize, and you lose all of the health benefits.”
In addition to harvesting at the right time, it’s equally important that olives are pressed within hours of picking, and that during the process they are never allowed to exceed 27ºC (sometimes, rather misleadingly, referred to as “cold-pressed” or “first pressed”).
Another important factor for olives (like any natural product) is terroir: the quality of the soil, climate, altitude, farming techniques, and so on.
“To give you an example,” says Lepori, “I have two Itrane from Alfredo Cetrone in Lazio. They are grown at different levels above the sea. Cooler nights and more rain give the higher altitude one a stronger, more complex taste.”
THE SELECTION PROCESS
When Lepori returned to Toronto after her second trip to Sicily, and decided to start importing olive oil, Mandranova was the natural place to begin. Since then she has expanded, adding producers from Sicily and seven other regions so far, but the criteria she uses remains the same.
- Endemic cultivar varieties. Each new EVOO Lepori adds to her list represents a typical product of a specific region. (Because of the country’s geographic, climatic, and cultural diversity there are literally thousands of these unique producers dotting the entire peninsula.)
- Short chain production: She seeks out estates that control the entire process: farming, harvesting, pressing, storage and bottling. The simpler the process, the fewer people involved, the easier it is to ensure quality control.
- Transparency. In contrast to many competitors, and going beyond Canadian regulations, Lepori insists that all packaging include: harvest and expiry dates; lot numbers; producer’s address; exact varietals and ratios (for blended oils). “EVOOs should be consumed within the first 18 months,” says Lepori, “But it’s often hard to tell. Some of the stock out there could be on shelves for years.”
- Personal relationships. Lugano is a family business. So are its partners. Lepori visits each of her producers before working with them, and not just to inspect the facility and practices. She talks a lot about shared views and principles, and valuing quality over quantity. “I am proud to work with small producers, to help preserve this incredible patrimony, and help them withstand the pressures of the globalized market.”
THE SIMPLE TRUTH ABOUT EVOOs
Here’s the simple (and sublime) truth about Italian EVOO, despite the impression you get in Toronto supermarkets: it’s not a homogeneous commodity. Far from it. There are hundreds of mono varietals, and many more traditional blends, and in many cases these products are unique to the very specific geographic location where they are produced.
True EVOO is a specialty item, difficult to create, and produced in small quantities. Because it is scarce, labour intensive, weather dependent, and produced on the other side of the planet, it will never be cheap to buy here in Toronto. “Even in Italy you cannot buy quality olive oil for less than eight euros [$12 Canadian] a bottle,” says Lepori, politely allowing us to fill in the blank.
But with a little research, and thanks to importers like Lugano Fine Foods, you can taste some of the best – and healthiest – EVOOs ever made, right here in Toronto. To get you started, here are a few helpful links:
1. For a simple definition of extra virgin olive oil and an illustration of how it differs from other grades, check out this helpful page from Olive Oil Times.
2. European Union (EU) quality schemes are also very valuable. There are three designations: PDO (protected designation of origin), PGI (protected geographical indication) and TSG (traditional speciality guaranteed). Here are the official logos you should look for:
Each means something a little different, and not all good EVOOs qualify for traditional status (Mandranova is an example of this). But products bearing one of these logos come with quality assurance. Read more about it here: EU Quality Schemes.