Having Irish and Italian descent, I’d like to think that I know a thing or two about whiskey, Guiness, and Italian cuisine. I grew up on my mother’s excellent Italian cooking, and my godmother and maternal aunt, who recently passed away, was just as sharp in the kitchen. She made a tossed salad that was a family favorite, using red wine vinegar and regular, heavy olive oil — straight from Italy, of course!
However, I don’t know how she’d react if she read this article, appearing in tomorrow’s New York Times, that blows the lid off of olive oil:
To divine the secrets of the famously Italian olive oils that are exported from the famously Italian countryside here, it is instructive to go right to the source. Not endless olive groves lovingly tended as if they were old friends, but more typically, a charmless tanker truck bearing foreign olive oil. …
Consumers the world over want Italian olive oil because it is supposed to be the finest, redolent of la dolce vita, and so the industry finds a way to give it to them, sort of.
In truth, Italy does not grow enough olives to meet even its own demand, let alone foreigners’. Spain, not Italy, actually has the world’s largest olive harvest. As a result, Italy is one of the world’s leading importers of olive oil, part consumed, the rest re-exported with newly assumed Italian cachet.
Italy imports its own olive oil? Mama mia! The Spaniards aren’t terribly pleased by the deception, either, and Clifford Levy invokes the spectre of Milli Vanilli in reporting the story:
Whether the Italian practice is proper depends on the interpretation of different laws in Italy, the European Union and the United States. As the producers carefully point out, if a Belgian chocolatier uses cocoa from Ivory Coast, does that mean that the chocolate is African?
To which at least some American consumers and the Spanish olive growers say, harrumph.
More than a trace of Mediterranean pride is at stake. The Spanish industry, unable to develop as robust a consumer reputation around “Imported from Spain,” has long resented essentially providing the vocals for the Italians’ lip-synching.
This practice of importing the oil and repackaging for export has not escaped notice before this, even in the US. Bertolli, whose product I often purchase myself, settled a lawsuit brought in New York for an undisclosed sum and an explanation of the oil’s source on the back label of its containers. Berio, Bertolli’s competitor whose business provides the main focus of the article, also recently changed its labeling to comply with American and other international requirements.
So how much of Italian olive oil is actually Italian? Not much, even according to Berio executive Alberto Fontana; in some years, it can be less than twenty percent. Fontana argues that the Italianess of the olive oil comes from the skilled refining and blending of the source oils, and not from the areas where the olives were grown or pressed. However, the labels on the products don’t discuss the refineries or the blending equipment — they invoke the images of the Old Country, an agrarian evocation of a simpler, purer life that stands in ironic contrast to the cynical truth.
In fact, every time I see Extra Virgin (which no self-respecting Italian would buy anyway) on a bottle of olive oil in the supermarket, it will remind me of my lost Italian-cuisine innocence. Infamnia!