I make olive oil. I know every single step of the process inside out, from sapling to mature tree, from the plucking of the fruit to the winding of the press. I also know how much all this labour of love costs. That’s part of my job too – watching every penny and dime we spend, but making sure we never cut corners. So when I go into a supermarket and see a half litre/17 fl oz bottle of ‘Italian extra virgin olive oil’ for £3 ($6), I know that it can’t be true. Extremely unlikely that it is extra virgin, highly unfeasible that it is Italian and totally conceivable that it isn’t even olive oil!
Let’s look at the maths. Each of our olive trees produces about two litres of olive oil a year. One year, one tree, one harvest, two litres. Each tree costs about €5 to prune. We cut the grass twice a year (sounds easy, but across 21 acres it becomes a little trickier) which works out as €2 per tree . Then the other major expenses are the harvesting by hand, costing about €4 a tree, organic fertiliser at €1 a tree and using the communal press to squash the beauties, coming out at $1.5 for every litre. So we are already up to around €7.50 a litre without including any of the farm overheads, taxes, marketing, organic certification, or big pasta lunches. We are however including the fact that we are paying decent living wages, we are not working people into the ground nor are we employing children.
But just considering the basic cost of product and we still need to add at least another €2.50 a litre for bottling, packaging and transport. So we’re now up to €10 a litre. With no profit taken by us a shop would typically want to sell this for €20 a litre. This is a long way from our cheap, supermarket extra virgin olive oil. Sure there are economy of scales, and no doubt I could get the harvesters (who include myself incidentally), to work that bit faster, but it’s not going to reduce the costs by an order of magnitude is it?
So it comes as no surprise to me that 4 out of 5 bottles of Italian extra virgin olive oil sold in the UK, USA and China don’t have inside what they say they have on the bottle. Which begs the question, what do they have inside? Well in his brilliant new book ‘Extra Virginity: the sublime and scandalous world of olive oil’, Thomas Mueller offers numerous shocking examples where this ‘italian extra virgin olive oil’ turns out to be mixes of chemically extracted olive oils, cut with nut or sunflower oil or both and it’s likely provenance is Spain, North Africa or Turkey. And I repeat, we are talking about 4 out of every 5 bottles here folks.
I’ve never personally seen evidence of any such shenanigans, but I have visited olive groves around Liguria where nets are left under the trees for the olives to fall into them. The windfall is collected every few weeks for processing – to be extra virgin the olives need to be pressed within 24 hours (not three weeks). Locals openly told me the subsequent oil was refined (to remove the rancid taste) and mixed with fruity foreign oil in a specific ratio so the resulting bottle of oil can still be called “Ligurian”.
So the moral of the story is that you get what you pay for. Don’t take your olive oil for granted. Ask questions about its origins. And heck, you can even go crazy and adopt your very own 100% Italian 100% olive 100% tree.