The other day I made a stew that I make all the time and thought it tasted off. I made my roommate try it to see if it was okay, he loved it, so I chalked it off to the peppery arugula I ate alongside it. The next day I made a marinade for flank steak and stuck my finger on it and was absolutely disgusted. I threw it away. It was the grossest thing I have ever made. However, I could not figure out why because I like all of the ingredients I put in it and did not know what would give it a metallic soapy taste. I brought my problem to the Food 52 hotline and got my answer--rancid olive oil. Sure enough, the 3 liters of olive oil I bought from an imported food store was disgusting. I have always sworn by the olive oils from this store which are imported from Greece. I felt like it was better than anything you can buy on the grocery store shelves.
Wrong! After a little research, I learned that olive oil imported from Europe is often adulterated with other oils and even if it says it is from Italy or Greece, Italy or Greece may have just been a stop on the way to the United States. It is expensive to make Extra Virgin Olive Oil and the European producers cannot keep up with the demand in the United States at a price-point that people will pay. The U.S. government does not think olive oil fraud is serious enough to crack down on, so therefore a lot of olive oil gets into the United States that is definitely not extra virgin olive oil, and possibly not even olive oil at all. You can read a short article about the problem here and a longer one here. Sadly, there are a lot of small producer's make really great olive oil in Greece and Italy, but when you are just buying a bottle off the grocery store shelf, it is really hard to tell if it is the good stuff or not. In my research I found that Colavita is a very reputable brand. I have also heard that a lot of cooks love the Kirkland (Costco) brand olive oil and I do not doubt that it is good, as the Kirkland brand is usually high quality.
The stuff I bought--definitely not the good stuff. It could have been a problem in the way that it was stored or the producers just might have gotten a bad batch, but knowing about this problem makes me really nervous to go buy 3 liters of olive oil that is imported from Europe.
So what is a cook to do? The good news is that California is producing some really great olive oils and they have a council that certifies certain brands as meeting its standards. I went to a local cooking store and tried several California olive oils and chose one specifically for dressings, marinades and dipping where a good flavor is important. I went with Lucero Mission extra virgin olive oil. Then I went to Trader Joe's and got a bottle of their less expensive California olive oil for those times where you need a lot of it or I am just using it to saute something. The funny thing is the bottles are incredibly similar and I wonder if Lucero is Trader Joe's supplier? You never know, but I do know that I feel good about purchasing California olive oils. Not only am I supporting businesses in the United States, but I am guessing I am supporting some pretty small farms too. Win-win!