This may be one of the most debated topics when it comes to olive oil - which country makes the best extra virgin olive oil?
Truthfully, the answer is quite easy, simply name your country.
If you're Greek it's Greece, if you're Spanish it's Spain, Chilean? Chile - and so on. Although it seems that that's the way it's always been, it doesn't actually answer the question.
When it comes to taste, people tend to assume that the choices that they make about the products that they buy and use are always the best ones. And that conviction makes sense because after all these choices are very personal. Some of them can be tied to memories, or where you grew up, or even to a place that you had an amazing vacation. And when it comes to olive oil it's no different.
It seems to be less about how good an oil is and more about loyalty to heritage or a place that you're connected to. And all these sentiments or feelings are fair - but only to a point.
Full disclosure - I'm Italian - and traditionally for most Italians, especially the ones that left the country there's absolutely no doubt that Italy makes the best extra virgin olive oil. And even within Italy, the regions will tell you that they make the best Italian olive oil.
I've struggled with that attitude for most of my life and even with my own family. Today I live in a Greek neighbourhood and in that neighbourhood the consensus is that Greece makes the best extra virgin olive oil.
It's the same for people that have visited, or have ties, or have had olive oil experiences in different countries. They will think that that oil is the best.
So here is the truth: making olive oil is actually very easy.
Just take any olive, in any condition, from any tree, from anywhere in the world. Bring it to any mill and soon after you will get some kind of an olive oil.
It's literally that easy.
But easy doesn't mean good.
Traditionally this is how a lot of olive oil is made around the world. See, it's romantic to think that tradition is synonymous with quality, but there lies the problem because when making a PROPERLY produced extra virgin olive oil there are a million steps and complications to take into consideration. Overlooking any one of these steps can have drastic effects on the quality of the oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is fresh fruit juice. To be precise, it's freshly extracted raw olive juice and when produced from clean and healthy olives that were properly grown, harvested, extracted by a master in a technologically advanced mill, it's alive. It is full of complexity, aroma, and health benefits.
Now, once we've established that basic level of quality, then and only then can we start talking about where an olive oil comes from.
And this is where it gets more interesting - just like we have different varietals of grape in wine like a Sangiovese or a Cabernet, the same is true for olives. In the olive world these varietals are called cultivars and there are about 2000 cultivars in the world - 700 of them in Italy alone.
Why is this important?
Each and every one of these cultivars has their own unique sensory profiles and characteristics - profiles that are highlighted depending on the microclimate and how they were produced.
Where it gets really crazy is that the same cultivar from the same region and even the same tree can have completely different sensory profiles when milled by different producers.
Aroperly produced extra virgin olive oil is a snapshot in time and space. It captures a particular season, in a particular place. it tells the story of a producer, a community, a region, and a country.
It is often the foundation and the finishing touch of a regional cuisine - basically you start with olive oil, and you finish with it.
The saying, "What grows together goes together," has a lot of significance when we're talking about a specific oil, from a specific region, on a specific dish.
It transports you into the groves and the kitchens of these producers, and they are dying to tell you a story. A story that only reaches its climax when that specific oil is paired to the local dish.
So how can we say that one country's olive oil is better than another?
It's like saying that my memories are better than yours - which is nonsense.
I can't argue with your memories from childhood, or from the place that you grew up, or from an amazing vacation, or from an incredible time with family and friends around a meal. But we can't confuse these subjective feelings with objective quality.
So when it comes to olive oil, what is this objective quality?
For starters, it needs to smell good and taste clean. It needs to remind you of freshness, of green, of fruit, of vegetables. Within those parameters there's a wide array of sensory profiles that we won't get into in a lot of detail, but that is the basic start.
I do understand how easy it is to have a subjective view of taste, but I'm lucky enough that as a professional olive oil taster I get to try incredible oils from all around the world and it's amazing to see
how more and more producers are moving away from these traditional methods and embracing objective quality.
Remember, just like we enjoy the differences from year to year in wines or other produce like cherries or strawberries - the differences from year to year in a properly produced extra virgin olive oil are a beautiful thing.
I'm sure you've noticed how I keep saying, "Properly produced." That is the key. From growing, to harvesting, to milling to bottling and even how it gets to your table- all of the steps have to be done right in order for us to enjoy an incredible extra virgin olive oil.
So no, there is no country or region that produces the best olive oil. it's complicated, and that's why people like me become obsessed with it. The best oil can come from anywhere if and only if it's produced properly.
So whether you're from Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Chile, Brazil, Japan, and even America - it's a great journey to dive into your country's properly produced extra virgin olive oils and pair them with local dishes.
But please keep in mind that there's a whole world out there to explore. Extra virgin olive oil is about freshness, it's about seasonality, it's about pleasure, it's about health, and it's about the sensory experience that only a properly produced extra virgin olive oil can really give you.