Part Three: Bananas, Coffee and chocolate.
Easy. You’re already doing it with other foods. You just need to treat olive oil the same way you would as something from a farmer’s market. In short, you need to cut out all the middle men. Here’s how.
1) Most of the scandals involve large multinational companies, the kind that live on your olive oil shelf in your local supermarket. Scan the shelves and these are the ones to avoid. No little producer that puts his or her name and address on the label would adulterate their oil, as their reputation is all they have. Be skeptical of anyone big enough to have a marketing department. Ideally, you’d visit an olive producing region, taste their oils and choose one you like. Make a human contact. Arrange for the producer to ship to you directly. Yes, the shipping will cost more because of the small order, but the savings on the back end will be so significant as to be worth it. Other tips include buying a bottle from the producer and taking it home with you but then ordering oil in five liter cans, lighter and more break-resistant that bottles (and you’ll already have one to refill left over from the trip anyway). Send a thank you card upon acceptance of the oil and tell them you’d like to order again next year. And if you’re happy, then do. The fact that you’re subscribed to the newsletter probably means that you’re already aware of the beauty of meeting the folks that produce your food. If you won’t be travelling in an olive region anytime soon, talk to a friend that will be. But that’s about as far away as you want to go, two generations.
2) Learn to hear ‘Ware’ ‘House’ ‘Club’ as three words that virtually guarantee the scams will continue (as long as there is an enormous, price-driven, under-informed buying pool, this is not going away anytime soon). Be willing to pay more, but only if that money goes directly to the producer.
3) Host an olive oil party, where folks bring a bottle (ask some to bring some hand-made oil and others to bring supermarket oil). Taste blind, preferably in small glasses, coloured blue if at all possible (the greenness forms opinions but is not a good indicator of freshness, fruitiness, etc., and blue masks the colour). You can find tasting notes online. We do this at the school a lot and it’s shocking how a favourite quickly stops being so when tasted against others. Don’t be intimated or slow down conversation by talking about how little you know. Taste. Really, really taste. You’re ahead of the game more than you think. Southern Europeans tend to be horrible comparative tasters as they tend more towards place-based chauvinism and social inertia (‘I don’t have to taste others, I know ours is best’). New Worlders tend to be remarkably good at not only noting differences but stating preferences.
And that is more or less it. I buy my oil from the same people that make it, and occassionally I make it myself. It’s always one of the proudest things on my table and it enriches my life considerably, that I’m that close to the source. In the end, it’s up to each of us.