Olive oil, or the “Golden Liquid” as Homer called it, has been part of Greek history since antiquity. It was regarded as a basic and irreplaceable nutritional component of the Greek diet, helping to protect one’s health and adding to one’s longevity.
Since the first olive tree was planted in Greece, believed to have been on Crete around 3500 BC in the Early Minoan times, olive oil has became synonymous with the Greek nutrition throughout the centuries.
Today, it is regarded as the best in the world, because extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) comprises at least 80%, and sometimes in Crete even it makes up almost 90%, of overall olive oil production.
“Greek EVOO’s have very low acidity and peroxides, which make them of premium quality,” says Nicholas Basoukos, managing partner of Greek Heritage Foods, a New York-based company which imports and packaged high-quality Greek olive oil and other foods.
The high quality can be recognized mainly from the fruitiness, the bitterness and the pungency of the oil as well as its aromas, which show the freshness and health of the olives. All these extraordinary characteristics are the result of proper planting, maintenance and meticulous care in all the stages of olive production and harvesting.
Adulterated or defective olive oils
Basoukos says that about 70% of all the labelled EVOO’s sold in United States supermarkets are either adulterated or defective.
Oil is considered adulterated when it is mixed with oils of inferior quality, such as canola, sunflower, soy, and corn, he explains.
“Defective is when the olive oil has very bad organoleptic characteristics (which include aroma and taste).”
This can happen for a variety of reasons, Basoukos says, including defective harvesting and production process, a lack of separation between good from bad olives, poor quality in the milling process or the use of high-temperature water.
Olives can ferment when they are exposed to the sun for a long period of time and when the milling machinery isn’t cleaned properly every time it is used for a different batch.
Basoukos says that what distinguishes Greek Heritage Foods from other companies is the fact that “our partners are the producers themselves, as well as the manufacturers. That gives us a competitive advantage since we have absolute control over all the stages of the production and packaging processes.”
Basoukos says that over the last several years, there has been a huge shift regarding the understanding of EVOO.
The chemical analysis standards which have been established from the International Olive Oil Council “are quite broad,” whereas the organoleptic analysis can trace defects untraceable from the standard chemical analysis.
“This whole organoleptic concept is relatively new for most people, so the majority of the producers, distributors and consumers are not familiar enough to distinguish the difference,” Basoukos says.
There are experts, however, such as Eleftheria Germanaki, an agronomist and an official judge in the most important international olive oil contests.
“Chemical analysis is very important, but through its smell and taste, someone can distinguish the quality of an οlive oil”, she states.
“The organoleptic process is a tool that every consumer can learn to use. Not everyone may have access to a chemical laboratory but everyone has the senses of smell and taste.”
Germanaki, who has been working on the qualitative attributes of olive oil for over thirty years, says that “the Greek land is truly blessed. Τhe luminous sun and crystal clear sea, the mountains and the wind all play vital roles that bring out all the high quality organoleptic characteristics of our οlive oils.”
The industry is changing
Greek EVOO’s can improve even more to become more competitive in the international market where new, very small-scale producing countries such as South Africa, Chile, Brazil, and the USA (California) are striving to grab a share.
Basoukos, whose olive oil recently won at the DOMINA olive oil contest in Italy and will participate at the New York Olive Oil Competition, says new countries will be competitive “because they started doing everything right from the beginning.”
However, with a great deal of education and investment, Greece can be a leader in premium quality EVOO production.