The Hunt for the True Extra Virgin

The Hunt for the True Extra Virgin

The Hunt for the True Extra Virgin

While the Mediterranean’s love affair with olive oil extends back for millennia, Americans have only relatively recently embraced the juice of the olive. And, just as in the first blush of any romance, the newly infatuated might be more easily led astray. Tests done by the UC-Davis Olive Center and ConsumerLab found that olive oils labeled as extra virgin in the US weren’t always the quality advertised. Some were rancid or fusty, and others appeared to have been blended with inferior oils. No one claimed these oils weren’t made from olives, but if you’re paying as much as $22 for a half-liter for the finest extra virgin, you want to be sure you’re getting extra virgin. To earn that label, the olives must be plucked with care from their branches at their peak—a moment too soon or too late and the flavor can be spoiled. They are then cold pressed (heat should never be added) within hours of picking. And only the first pressing can be called extra virgin.

But, how do importers, restaurateurs, or retailers ensure they are getting the finest oil that their budgets allow? Enter Jill Myers of Evoolutionary of Charlottesville, Virginia. Myers is an accredited olive oil sommelier who trained with other olive oil aficionados from around the globe at the International Culinary Center. There, she refined the skills that allow her to appreciate the nuances of different cultivars of olives, very much the way a wine sommelier learns to understand the idiosyncrasies of each region’s grapes. ”You reach a certain level of recognition,” says Myers. “There are over 1,500 olive cultivars. I don’t claim I can distinguish every one of those 1,500, but I can always identify the country.

Perhaps more important, Myers’ palate is trained to detect any defects in an oil that boasts the extra virgin label.

“Buyers for retail stores, boutique stores, call on me to evaluate oils or to help them select a high quality oil,” says Myers. Working with some of the highest rated restaurants in the Charlottesville and Richmond areas, she also curates oils for chefs based on how they will be used.

Producers, looking for representation, will often send Myers samples of their oil.

Myers, is, of course, very selective, but says there is some superb oil being imported into the US now. “I only represent small producers and try to help them get into the United States. And, sometimes that's as few as less than a thousand bottles.”

While Myers works on the culinary side, her partner in Evoolutionary, Tassos Kyriakides, PhD, founder of Olive Oil Institute at Yale University, focuses on the oil’s health benefits. Although not conclusive, studies suggest regular ingestion of olive oil is linked to better heart health, lower risk of certain cancers, and, when substituted for less heart-healthy fats, may even contribute to weight loss.

As Myers explains, “All super fresh oils that are harvested with meticulous means have a good phenolic content count.” Polyphenols, such as those found in extra virgin olive oil, are what scientists believe confer olive oil’s health benefits.

In fact, though what we call the Mediterranean diet varies somewhat in components and flavors from one country to the next, what each has in common is olive oil.

For a foody like Myers, while the health advantages are a great side benefit, what matters at least as much is the magnificent flavor. She’ll be visiting olive groves in several European countries at harvest time, on the hunt for the next great oil.

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