Good olive oil is filled with monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants, while poor quality oil is produced with chemicals and low-quality fruit. So how do you know? All good olive oil will be extra virgin, and the qualities to look for are a fruity aroma, pungency and bitterness. The actual fruit aromas will vary, but it should be fresh and bright. Pungency is a peppery sensation you get in your throat that makes you want to cough. And bitterness is an indication that fresh, uncured olives were used — because they’re bitter off the tree. You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money on a bottle of oil, but by looking out for these qualities you’ll know if what you’re getting is the real deal.
Brent isn’t the only oil that’s sweet, light and crude. A lot of widely available olive oil labeled as “extra virgin” — meaning that it’s made made fresh, defect free, and produced at temperatures of less than 86 degrees fahrenheit — is actually garbage in a bottle. “In the olive oil industry, like any other industry, there are bottom feeders doing gross things with bad olive oil, but still getting them into the distribution channels so they end up in supermarkets”, says Steve Jenkins, Fairway Market’s olive oil buyer, Prud’homme in the elite Guilde Internationale des Fromagers and an organizer of the New York International Olive Oil Competition. “They adulterate them, they crush olives that are dead, rancid, gross, nasty. Huge mountainous piles of them in Andalusia, which if you stuck your arm in them it would burn your arm off. Right off!” We met Jenkins at this year’s competition to taste a few of the 651 entries and find out how we can get our hands on the best olive oil available to the average customer. Here are five bottles that he considers top notch.
If you’re in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut you can get most of these at Fairway Market; otherwise, they’re available online.
Basilippo won a gold award at the 2014 competition for their “First Days of Harvest” extra virgin olive oil. This Spanish coupage (which means a blend of oils) is a cold-extracted blend of arbequina and verdial oils. Look for a sweet, grassy nose and a spicy finish. Like all the oils here, this one is great for all kinds of cooking (though they’ll lose flavor at higher heats), but it’s especially good splashed on a white bean soup.
Castillo de Tudejen
Another Spanish oil, this one from Tudela in the Navarra region, Castillo de Tudejen is an early harvest extra virgin olive oil made with arbequina olives. It’s green and fruity, with a mild flavor and complex aroma. Pour it on baguette for breakfast with a café con leche.
Moulin du Mas des Barres
As bucket list destinations for the culinarily inclined, Provence is at the top of the list for its rosé wine, pissaladières and some of the best olive oils in the world. This one comes from a valley in the Alpilles mountains, and since it’s made with five varieties of olives you get a flavor profile that includes everything from artichokes to hazelnuts to dried fruits. Eat like a local and use it to dress a traditional salade Nicoise.
Cabeço das Nogueiras Premium
Fresh out of Quinta do Pouchão, Ribatejo, in Portugal, this blended oil won a silver award at this year’s competition. It’s fruity, green and a little bitter. The judges praised its complexity and harmony. Upgrade your potato game by dressing this some homemade patatas bravas — or home fries — with this oil.
Frantoi Celletti Leccino Monocultivar
As in fashion and cars, no collection of olive oils would be complete without some Italian representation. This oil from Frantoi Celletti is a monocultivar made entirely from the leccino olive. The producer of this one also has a restaurant and oil bar (for tasting) in a 19th century building in Milan that was formerly a factory. Go for the oil, stay for the branzino. Or, if you’re a homebody, grill the branzino at home and finish with a pour of oil.