I began my journey into the world of olive oil production with the assumption that tradition is great. But when it comes to olive oil, I learned that tradition is sometimes the enemy of quality. Just because something is traditional doesn’t mean that it’s good.
Olive oil is very easy to make. All you do is crush some olives. But to make it well is an extremely difficult and expensive process. Many things can go wrong. The oil can be altered in a harmful way when it’s exposed to heat, oxygen and contaminants. Truthfully, the simple passage of time is extremely damaging to olive oil.
Traditional Olive Oil Production
Traditionally, farmers waited for the olives to mature and fall to the ground. Unfortunately, the olives would start fermenting as soon as they touched the dirt. The farmers would gather the fruit and store it in sacks, sometimes for days, to avoid going to the mill more than once. While in storage this way, the fermentation would continue.
On top of that, the mills were often not very clean, and while the olives were being crushed, they would be exposed to air, debris, and dirty water. Technically, this method still produced olive oil, but nothing that would change your life and likely ruin your dish.
Most Olive Oil Is Rancid, and we may not even know about it
In many cultures and regions, the traditional methods of olive oil production are still favoured as the best or only way. Unfortunately, since the early days of olive oil production, our palates have been accustomed to bad olive oil. We’ve had no choice. And sadly, in most parts of the world, olive oil is still produced this way. But luckily, as awareness grows, better and better oils will start to be produced year after year.
I’ve heard people say things like, “Hey, but I’m from (insert your country of origin here). We make the best oil,” or “Hey, but I’m from (insert your family’s region here). We make the best oil.”
Then there is the misconception around the idea of something being homemade. It’s another facet within the myth that traditional methods are unrivalled. For example, if you meet someone whose father-in-law has two olive trees and makes two litres of oil, they will proudly say, “My oil is homemade,” hinting at quality, even if it is most likely a defective oil.
Unfortunately, this conviction that homemade olive oil is superior is the hardest thing to demystify. It means something else in terms of flavour and quality. Stefano Donaudy states in the documentary, “we could make the same comparison with homemade wine. More often than not, homemade wine is undrinkable, tastes like sulphur and is full of defects – a very poor quality.”
In truth, we have all grown up using rancid oil. With nothing to compare it to, the palate grows accustomed to the bad taste, becoming normal. But once you discover that a good oil is different, it will be hard to tolerate rancid olive oil.
If you haven’t seen it yet, here is Chapter 1.