We will put together a guide to olive oil labelling issues in the near future because it is clearly not a well understood subject outside this part of the Mediterranean and the Italian regulations themselves often contribute to the confusion.
However for this and subsequent profiles of artisan olive oil producers let’s be clear that we are talking here about the top quality oil with which you dress salads, drip onto warm bread and glug generously onto almost every finished pasta dish, risotto and humble minestrone to elevate the food and make that first mouthful exquisite.
This is not about cooking oil; the oil we will cover in this section is simply too good to heat in any way. The difference between olive oil for cooking and olive oil for dipping, tasting and finishing dishes is the same as the difference between wine for cooking and wine for drinking. And yet you only have to scan the supermarket shelves in the UK and the US to realize quickly that finding the highest quality authenticated Italian olive oil (ie DOP or IGP on the label or at the very least “estate grown and bottled”) is no easy task. The DOP designation is the small orange circle on the main labels or neck of the bottles in the various photographs below.
I found just a couple of genuine looking Italian olive oils on the Whole Foods Austin website (but without any DOP certification on the label, just "Product of Italy") and a friend also found no DOP oil when physically walking the aisle in Seattle, likewise on the Waitrose website in the UK.
Even worse, the biggest “Italian” olive oil brand in both countries is Filippo Berio, sold extensively by Waitrose and others. This is a brand with a processing facility in Massarosa just down the road from Lucca that since 2014 has been owned by China’s food conglomerate Bright Food and you might recognize it as the olive oil with the trite advertising all along the wall of the arrival corridor at Pisa airport depicting Filippo in 1867 as a sun-drenched Italian contadino (peasant farmer) pouring his amazing looking oil onto bruschetta.
Not long after the Chinese acquisition, in 2015, Filippo Berio was the subject of a class action lawsuit* for both misleading labeling as to origin and for misrepresenting the oil as “extra virgin” (which essentially means oil naturally low in acidity that is extracted mechanically not chemically). And even today you have to read the small print on the back of the label to see the reference to Tunisian oil though the front label might say something like “Product of Italy”, which under current regulations unfortunately could simply mean that it was bottled in Italy.
You would expect Waitrose to choose suppliers more carefully and even the Waitrose own brand Italian olive oil provides no provenance information at all. “Grown on an Italian hillside” doesn’t really do the job and doesn’t speak to where the olives were pressed but at least Waitrose expands on the “extra virgin” description by stating in the product description that the olives were processed solely by mechanical means. However, specific information on the acidity percentage in the finished oil would be useful to avoid this being simply a “trust us” item.
Acidity is perhaps the most important thing to know about olive oil because it provides evidence of the condition of the fruit at pressing and determines whether it can be classified as extra virgin or not. Beware of cheap oils, they oxidize and go rancid much faster and if the product is too cheap then there is probably some level of misrepresentation (legal or otherwise) about its true origin. If like us you don’t want China or Tunisia anywhere near your Italian olive oil then keep reading. The photograph below is the higher end section of olive oils in a typical large Italian supermarket.
Outside Italy you can find good quality Italian olive oil from specialist online retailers if you spend some time searching, including Eataly. We have no doubt that Eataly sells only genuine Italian olive oil, but disappointingly there are just two DOP oils on its entire list and a few IGP designated oils, probably because as a big retailer it needs to source oil in large quantities and these designations simply represent additional cost (there is an important difference between DOP and IGP that we will address in a later article).
Or you could order direct from one of the producers we trust and write about. Many of these will be neither DOP nor IGT because they are too small to make it worthwhile and have regular local buyers every year who have no use for these consumer protection designations. Only if you know your producer and their oil very well do DOP and IGP become unnecessary. In a supermarket aisle in the US or UK we think they are essential.
But however you source your high quality Italian olive oil, the fact is that some of the best olive oil in the world can arrive on your doorstep in the US or UK for not much more than $33 or £24 and will improve the flavor of your lunches and dinners for a whole month, probably longer because we use quite a lot and only get through about 10 bottles a year (plus another 15 bottles of olive oil for cooking). Compare that to a bottle of decent wine at the same price that lasts exactly one evening and at $33 will be some way short of the best wine in the world.
And if you’ve always believed that olive oils are all pretty much the same, then it would be like someone telling you that there’s not much difference between Domaine Romanée Conti and Beaujolais because they’re both red wines. Many people also complain that the top Italian olive oils are too expensive but now we’ve had the pleasure of sampling some of the world’s finest oils from different regions of Italy we find ourselves wondering why they are so cheap.
If you get in touch with Renzo Baldaccini and order a few bottles of his award winning olive oil and then taste it next to something from Colavita or Filippo Berio, or frankly anything else you can find in the US or UK, you will immediately understand everything written here and what tremendous value the best Italian oils represent. Should Renzo be sold out or if a slightly softer style be more to your taste then call Romina Mariotti at La Badiola and buy some of her equally fabulous olive oil. Much more on the whole subject of olive oil labeling confusion was recently added here.
Renzo Baldaccini’s olive grove is set in the grounds of his lovely 16th century property which itself lies within the historic Mansi-Cenami estate. It’s just a few miles north of Lucca, barely in the foothills, at an elevation of 300 feet. The bulk of his olive trees are quite young (top photo) as he planted a new field only twenty years ago but closer to the property there are others dating back 200 years (photo immediately above) that are still producing olives.
He has about 1,000 trees in total which in the harvest last October yielded only 2,000 liters of oil, most of which are sold in half-liter bottles. The Frantoio cultivar accounts for 90% of his olives; this is one of the more typical varieties grown in Tuscany and notable for its intense flavor. The Italian word frantoio can be a little confusing because as well as the name for an olive cultivar it also means the mill where olives were traditionally pressed for their oil using the large grinding stones that are now mostly museum exhibits. The word frantoio remains in use today to also describe the more modern processing facilities.
The Baldaccini property comes with its own private chapel (photo below).
Renzo’s olive oil is universally regarded as the best oil in Lucca, not just now but for the last several years. It doesn’t matter who you talk to, even other olive oil producers, there is universal admiration for his olive oil and for 4 years in a row his oil has been voted the best in Lucca by the Italian Sommeliers’ Association and for 3 years voted the best also by the Maestro d’Olio organization, of which Elena is a member.
With all these accolades and only 4,000 half-liter bottles available between now and next November you can begin to understand why we think it’s underpriced. I can only imagine what a limited production Napa winemaker would charge if he were in receipt of so many awards; there would be a waiting list four years long just to buy a single bottle.
Renzo is old school. All his olives are harvested by hand which means that each tree is raked and the olives fall onto nets laid on the ground all around the tree. The nets are immediately gathered up and the olives poured into containers. With ripe olives it is best to avoid actually touching them because any pressure can damage them a little and the goal here is to make an oil of the highest possible quality.
Unless there is time for his olives to be pressed the same day they are harvested, Renzo prefers to leave them on the tree until the next day. They will not spend a single day or night sitting on the ground or on the back of a truck. And here is where it gets a bit tricky.
There is only one frantoio in Lucca authorized to press olives for aziende who wish to preserve their DOP status (ie the European wide symbol that is the guarantee of provenance and process) and that is Frantoio Lenzi a few miles away in the lovely village of San Gennaro.
So for a series of consecutive days in late October, Renzo will drive his precious cargo of freshly harvested olives to Lenzi where he will make sure that all the equipment is scrubbed down to avoid any chance of contamination with the olives from somewhere else and he will watch over the pressing of his olives.
This is typically carried out for the best customers on the night shift where there is less confusion and less individual smallholders trucking in their olives to this facility. And every morning he will return home with his fresh olive oil that will immediately be placed in stainless steel tanks in his cellar with an automatic inert gas injection system to prevent oxygen entering whenever he fills up a bottle from the tap at the bottom of the tank. He filled up our bottles from the tap just after our tasting and it is a lovely thing to watch the freshest possible oil being poured out for you to take straight home.
The rules to keep in mind for olive oil are important but very simple. Age, oxygen, heat and light are the enemies, so good oils are sold in dark bottles and should be stored in a cool place, preferably in the dark but never in the fridge, and only buy the most recent vintage. Consume it within a year while it is still fresh and then buy the next vintage.
So what is the secret to Renzo’s success? How is it that his relatively young olive trees produce such nectar? Perhaps it’s the three miniature horses that wander freely around his olive grove providing regular amounts of daily manure or perhaps it’s just the same as in the wine world where an unfathomable combination of natural circumstances enables a world famous wine to be made a few fields away from something much more prosaic.
Tasting Notes: La Badiola and Renzo Baldaccini
Also a producer of wine (see Winery Visits section) La Badiola makes a similar amount of olive oil to Baldaccini and also harvests by hand. It has no DOP or IGP designation but is widely respected as one of Lucca’s premier olive oil producers and like many others we buy its oil every year. La Badiola is situated about 400 feet higher than Baldaccini.
Green, gold color. Deep, rich and intense on the nose with some notable complexity. Recognizable tones of apple, aubergine, lettuce and green pepper and that wonderful perfume of fresh herbs that all good oils have in one form or another. In the mouth it’s quite round and soft with notes of almonds and then finishes with some pleasing bitterness. This oil will go well with aromatic foods.
A very similar lovely shade of green. On the nose it is slightly less complex than La Badiola, but it bursts out of the glass with freshness. It’s also more focused and precise with notes of artichoke and Italian chicory and freshly cut grass to the fore. Hints of mediterranean brush also. In the mouth the spicy and bitter flavors predominate with ginger on the finish. This oil will better suit richer more strongly flavored dishes. This is quite simply a sensational olive oil, fully deserving of all the accolades.
Both olive oils are top quality and both are typical of Tuscany, especially the Lucca subzone. The difference between the two is that La Badiola is more soft and round and the Baldaccini oil is slightly more bitter, perhaps because of its higher concentration of the Frantoio cultivar. Choosing between the two becomes purely a question of personal taste and matching each oil to the appropriate dish.
Note that when we refer to bitterness it is not a flaw, nor is it unpleasant. Rather it is an essential component of a good quality olive oil and if an oil doesn't catch a little at the back of the throat then it will taste bland and industrial. Furthermore, the bitterness is created by the existence of phenolic and polyphenolic compounds which provide all the health benefits of olive oil in the areas of blood pressure, coronary heart disease and cancer. Extra virgin olive oil contains the highest level of polyphenols; chemical extraction, refining and filtration will destroy them.
(* the class action lawsuit was successful, it was then appealed and upheld on appeal in Sept 2018 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and payments to consumers were made in 2019.)