Trisha LeVatte is the manager of the Vancouver Olive Oil Company, a 1 1/2-year-old Kitsilano, B.C., store and tasting room that specializes in single-cultivar olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars. The fragrant, complex oils she sells aren't in the same category as your everyday grocery store brands – although she argues that there is no justification for exorbitant prices (hers run $12 for 200 millilitres). Here are LeVatte's five tips on how to spot high-quality oils and get the most out of them.
1. Olive oil likes the dark: "UV light is public enemy No. 1 of olive oil. You don't want to buy an olive oil that's in a clear bottle – make sure the bottle's dark or stainless steel. In our store, we don't even decant our oil until the customer is ready to buy it. It's the same as when olive oil is exposed to too much heat; it just destroys it. At home, make sure to keep it in a cool dark area too."
2. Olive oil chemistry 101: "Ideally, you want to be able to buy your olive oil from a store that can give you some chemistry, so you can know you're getting all the health benefits. The most important numbers are the polyphenol count – the antioxidants in an olive oil – and the oleic acid." For the polyphenol, which gives that tickle at the back of your throat, anywhere from 50 to 300 milligrams per kilogram is good. The other side are the things you want as low as possible: free fatty acids and peroxides, which are higher in rancid oil."
3. Make sure it's fresh: "You want to consume an olive oil one year from the date it was crushed, maximum. Expiry dates are fine, but sometimes those dates are put on bottles two years ahead of time. If you're buying quality oil, try to find out when it was crushed. As the oil gets older, the polyphenol count starts to drop and the peroxide starts to rise."
4. Try to taste before you buy: "Everybody's palate is different and there are thousands of different olive cultivars. They can have anywhere from a green-banana flavour to the taste of ripe avocado or tomato." For example, there's a Greek olive called koroneiki that is quite bitter and it gives a nice peppery taste. Having said that, tasting it neat is very different than when you're gonna cook with it. When you're mixing the oil with a balsamic or greens, you're not going to get that strong polyphenol kick in the back of your throat."
5. Don't get hung up on region: "In my mind, appellation really doesn't mean a whole lot. There's so much controversy going on in different parts of the world right now about the sourcing of olive oil. Huge estate or small farm, it doesn't really matter. On the scale of what's important, region is way, way down there."