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[From the lead article in the Weekend Australian Review of May 22-23, 1999, written by Clare Pedrick; Telephone: 02 9288 2312; used with permission]
Franco Lombardi represents a new breed of olive oil producer in Italy. He is anxious to protect the image of the product in the face of mounting doubts about the quality of some of it.
He has an orchard of 4000 olive trees, all grown from saplings. His press is located 40 km from his home in Tuscany and is the only one in the area that has remained faithful to the time-honoured system of using a stone mill to squeeze the juice from the fruit.
While olive oil, and especially Italian oil, is enjoying unprecedented popularity, there is growing evidence that suggests the product is not always what it seems.
The most sought after product is Italian extra virgin olive oil, especially that from Tuscany.
Unfortunately, not all the olive oil that leaves Italian shores is necessarily Italian, it seems.
Unknown to most consumers, olive oil made in other countries is shipped into Italy in vast quantities each year for bottling or processing, so that it can leave the country with an Italian label.
Olives have also been imported into Italy from Spain, Turkey or Tunisia and have been made into oil with an Italian label.
Italy is the second biggest exporter of olive oil, just behind Spain but it grows a fraction of the olives that Spain does. Italy is the biggest importer of olive oil.
Some estimates indicate 40 per cent of olive oil found on British and US supermarket shelves has been adulterated or is not what it seems. The figures for other countries importing large quantities of olive oil are thought to be similar.
Earlier this year, the Italian police force's NAS (nucleo antisofisticazioni) consumer affairs squad seized a tanker containing several thousand litres of olive oil being brought into Italy via Sicily from Morocco. The oil was almost certainly destined for a bottling plant further north, probably in Tuscany, before being re-exported as Italian. Tests on the Moroccan oil showed it was substandard, which enabled police to refuse it entry on the grounds that it could be dangerous to consumer health. But had the oil passed health safety requirements, the Italian authorities would have been powerless to act.
European Union regulations state that the place of origin stated on the label should refer to the region or country where the oil was processed or bottled.
Most of the olives and olive oil imported into Italy and then re-exported has come originally from southern Mediterranean countries, where yields are substantially higher, labour costs lower and production methods less tightly controlled.
Italy only produces 60 to 65 per cent of its domestic consumption of olive oil.
There is a campaign in Italy to tighten the controls on olive oil production.
The president of Italy's National Consortium of Olive Growers, Maurizio Paccetti, admits blatant scams involving unscrupulous olive producers regularly take place.
'There are oils which are labelled as extra virgin when they are not extra virgin at all, and there is the trick of mixing olive oil with seed oil to make it go further,' he says. 'But the way the law stands at the moment, it is quite legal to put olive oil from three different countries into a bottle and declare it to be the produce of Italy, so long as it was actually put into bottles here. On paper, that's not a fraud, but from the consumer's point of view, it's a pretty shifty practice."
Italy's Ministry of Agriculture is pushing for new legislation within the EU that would make it obligatory to state the provenance of the olives on the label.
Price is often the only real indication of where the liquid in an olive oil bottle has come from.
In Italy, a price war has led to supermarkets offering 1 litre of extra virgin oil for as little as 5000 lire ($5.50), about half its usual price.
But experts caution that it is likely to prove a false economy.
'You can buy cheap oil, but it will have been processed using chemicals or by being heated up,' says Giuseppe Crispoldi, who owns an olive press near the small Umbrian village of San Mamiliano. Crispoldi is proud of his olive press which, notwithstanding its state-of-the-art machinery, is based on ancient principles. One machine churns the olives into a paste before another crushes the pulp, spread out on a stack of webbed mats, to squeeze out the juice. The result is a thick, opaque liquid whose golden green colour is one of the pointers to its quality. It looks quite different from most of the olive oil found on supermarket shelves.
There is little real protection for the consumer. Even the term extra virgin, traditionally the byword for good oil, is too loose to provide an effective safeguard.
Harvest time for olives in Tuscany is between November and December. Franco Lombardi and his wife Lia pick the olives from their 4000 trees entirely by hand.
The only aid is a small, plastic comb-like tool that gently prises the ripe fruit from the twigs.
The alternative harvesting method, used by the bigger producers in Italy and beyond, is by using machines fitted with mechanical arms that rip the olives from the tree, breaking all the small twigs off in the process. This exposes the tree to scab, which requires spraying with chemical disinfectant.
Lombardi stores his olives carefully in well-ventilated crates with layers no more than 10cm deep. Damaged olives start to oxidise and ferment before pressing, which raises the acidity and compromises the quality of the oil.
The oil is extracted using the ancient cold pressing technique. The more modern hot-pressing method, used by the big producers, damages the flavour and quality of the oil.
Lombardi does not filter his oil, believing that its natural body and consistency should be left intact. He also does not add anything to the oil. 'Genuine olive oil should be squeezed olives and nothing else,' he says. 'It's just the juice.'
Lombardi's painstaking attention to detail does not come cheap. His oil, labelled Il Pornanino after the Tuscan farmstead where he and his wife live, sells at 22,000 lire for a 0.5-litre bottle. Yet he has no trouble selling the 5000 bottles or so he produces each year. This year's output has already been shipped to customers throughout the world, including Australia. Il Pornanino is impossible to find on the shelves of an Italian supermarket.Regular clients have learned that each year Lombardi's oil may be slightly different in taste and colour, according to the amount of rain and sun and the time of harvest. This season's oil has a pleasing, slightly bitter aftertaste because the olives were harvested early due to an unusually warm autumn.Like most Italian lovers of good olive oil, Lombardi insists that the best way to savour olive oil is on bruschetta, a piece of bread toasted over an open fire, rubbed with salt and garlic and then soused in creamy golden-green olive oil.
Any claims made by authors in the Australian New Crops Newsletter are presented by the Editors in good faith. Readers would be wise to critically examine the circumstances associated with any claims to determine the applicability of such claims to their specific set of circumstances. This material can be reproduced, with the provision that the source and the author (or editors, if applicable) are acknowledged and the use is for information or educational purposes. Contact with the original author is probably wise since the material may require updating or amendment if used in other publications. Material sourced from the Australian New Crops Newsletter cannot be used out of context or for commercial purposes not related to its original purpose in the newsletter
Contact: Dr Rob Fletcher, School of Land and Food, The University of Queensland Gatton College, 4345; Telephone: 07 5460 1311 or 07 5460 1301; Facsimile: 07 5460 1112; International facsimile: 61 7 5460 1112; Email:email@example.com
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originally created by:GK; latest update 17 October 2001 by: RF