Today, May 25, 2005, the following article on olive oil appeared at the NYT website.
JUST as wine now cuts a broad swath across the temperate regions of the globe, increasingly olive oil is following suit. In the way pinot noir and chardonnay have spread beyond Burgundy, countries that do not border the Mediterranean have jumped on the olive oil bandwagon. Suddenly, for them olive oil is becoming an important ingredient in local cuisines, and a worthwhile export.
And though most oils still come from Italy, Spain, Greece and France, now the bottles and tins of green and gold in food stores could also be extra-virgin brands from Tunisia, Australia, Israel and the United States (California, to be exact). South Africa, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Turkey, Peru, Lebanon, Morocco, Croatia and Jordan may also be represented.
"The whole world wants to do everything everyone else does," said Darrell Corti, an owner of Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif., a shop that specializes in olive oil and that was among the first to sell oils from California. "People will plant olive trees and make oil to say they can," he said. Mr. Corti said that even Japan produces some olive oil, on the island of Shikoku, near the center of the archipelago. "It's the only place with the proper climate," he said.
So far, Japanese olive oil, a legacy of 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, has not made it to the American market. But at last summer's Fancy Food Show in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, olive oils from 445 companies in 16 countries were on display. In 2000, 398 companies and 11 countries exhibited olive oils. Ron Tanner, the spokesman for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which sponsors the show, said this year there may be a Palestinian entry.
Motivated partly by olive oil's healthy image over the last two decades, the United States has become a sponge, sopping up more olive oil year after year.
In 1982 less than 30,000 metric tons of olive oil were imported into this country. In 2003 the figure was 214,473 tons, for about 10 percent of the world's production. Bob Bauer, the president of the North American Olive Oil Association, a trade group, added that last year 47 percent of the olive oils consumed in the United States were extra virgin, compared with 33 percent just five years ago. About 80 percent of all the imported oil came from the Mediterranean region, he said. "Turkish and Tunisian oils are increasing and Australia is growing at a nice clip," Mr. Bauer said. Last year's imports of Australian oils were triple those of 2003, and while the totals are not significant, they are expected to continue to rise.
Olive trees were first planted in Australia in the early 19th century, with oils made by French and Italian immigrants. Today there are an estimated eight million olive trees there, and many buyers in American stores are impressed by the quality of the country's extra virgin oils.
"We've found that some of the European olive varieties take on a very different character here in Australia," said Andrew Konowalous, a partner in Piquant Blue, a three-year-old company based in Perth that is Australia's largest olive oil company. "The Italian varieties give the grassy, peppery oils, the same as in Italy," Mr. Konowalous said, "but the Spanish ones, especially like picual and nevadillo blanco oils, have distinctive flavors; tomato, for example, and even chocolate, that you won't find anywhere else, and we still don't know why." Sales of his company's oils in the United States have doubled in the six months since they were introduced last year.
Unlike the finer European oils, the prices of which have skyrocketed because of the weak dollar, the exchange rate for Australian oils is more favorable. Prices can also be kept in line because new olive groves in Australia are planted to permit cheaper, more efficient mechanical harvesting.
In South American countries like Argentina and Chile, where European settlers planted olive trees hundreds of years ago, olive oil has recently become an industry, with increasingly vast groves of olive trees, mostly Italian and Spanish varietals, and state-of-the-art production methods.
"There has been a new wave of modern olive oil production in the past 10 years," said Josť Miguel Cuevas, the marketing director for Olave U.S.A., the importer of Olave oils from Chile. Mr. Cuevas also said that foreign investors, from Italy and Spain, are coming to Chile to produce additional oils for a world market that is having trouble keeping up with demand.
Chefs everywhere, even in Asia and Scandinavia, are using it.
Because of labeling laws in the European Union, even a bottle of oil that says "imported from Italy" may actually contain oils from several countries, including Turkey, Tunisia, Spain and Greece (though if it does, the label must say so).
Good olive oils, from no matter which country, are also likely to carry a harvest date and a date they should be used by. The label may also designate estate bottlings, lists of the varieties of olives in the blend and, increasingly, an indication that the oil is organic. These details contribute not only cachet, but a real dedication to quality. "There is no longer any excuse for making bad oil," Mr. Corti said. "Unfortunately, too many oils these days are boring or just lack distinction."
Despite making olive oil since ancient times, countries like Tunisia and other places in North Africa and the Middle East now need technical help to produce better quality oil. In the past, their oils were sold in bulk and used for blending, which is why Tunisia is the world's fourth-largest producer.
Making better oils requires upgrading the equipment used, and striving for more consistency. Such an effort is under way in Lebanon, supported by several international agencies, to bring the country's olive oil production to a level that is competitive on the international market.
"We have some ancient, unique olive varieties in Lebanon, but our agriculture was not maintained during the civil war and until recently no one was taking care of the quality of the oils," said Dr. Wafa Khoury, an agricultural specialist who is working with a United States Agency for International Development project in Lebanon. She is helping small growers modernize techniques for cultivation, harvesting, pressing and bottling the oils to guarantee quality.
"It's hard to get someone to change what's been done for hundreds of years," said Rose Malindretos, who is in charge of communication for Oliviers & Company, which seeks out small estates in a dozen countries, including Lebanon.
Olivier Baussan, the owner of the company, said he prefers artisanal producers, especially those who use endemic olive varieties. "Is Chilean oil made with Italian olives an authentic product?" he asked. "You have to pay attention to the history of what you sell, especially in a world that is increasingly standardized. "In addition, Mr. Corti said, it is often difficult to tell where an oil was made by its flavor or color. "Everyone likes greenish, peppery, Tuscan-style oils," he said. "Not long ago you wouldn't find them in Puglia in southern Italy, because they made oils with riper olives. But now you're getting peppery, greenish oils from there, too."One of the two Spanish oils being introduced by Michel Rolland, the international wine consultant who is now involved with olive oils, has that peppery flavor profile.
Considering that it's enough of a challenge to decide between an Italian oil from Tuscany and one from Puglia, do you really need to bother with the new Peruvian olive oil they're selling at Kitchen Market in Chelsea? The Jordanian and Lebanese ones at Kalustyan's? Or the growing number of Australian choices at Dean & DeLuca?
Browse the shelves of a store like Fairway and you have to wonder; there are more than 50 different olive oils on display just past the entrance.
"I stock so many oils for the same reason I stock so many cheeses," said Steven Jenkins, the buyer and a partner in the store. "I lose sight of the fact that I am a retailer, not a curator. I hate having gaps in my collection."
There are now 100 million olive trees planted in China, with most of the oil stripped, refined and used for blending into vegetable oils. But how long will it take before some of it is turned into extra virgin olive oil? "And watch out for Texas, for heaven's sake," Mr. Jenkins said. "The market for olive oil is plenty big enough."