Friday, December 16, 2005

Behind the mystique of Turkish olive oil

Behind the mystique of Turkish olive oil by Sam Gugino

Special to MSN

You've probably consumed Turkish olive oil on a number of occasions and don't
even know it. How's that? Turkey is the fourth- or fifth-largest producer of
olive oil in the world, after Spain, Italy, Greece, and sometimes Tunisia,
depending on the harvest. But as with much of the olive oil in Spain and
Tunisia, Turkish olive oil is often sent to Italy to be repackaged and sold as
if it were Italian olive oil.

Then there are brands such as Cavallo d'Oro, which sounds very Italian. But this
is a Turkish oil that was shipped to the United States and given an Italian name
to make it easier to sell. After all, most Americans when faced with a choice
would buy an Italian olive oil ? or one that sounds like an Italian olive oil ?
in a heartbeat over a Turkish olive oil (or Spanish, or Greek or Tunisian oil
for that matter).

On a trip to Turkey in April 2000, I was amazed to find out how many olive oil
containers with labels that look very Italian actually contain Turkish olive
oil. At Taris, the largest olive oil producer in Turkey, there was an entire
room containing cans and bottles with names like Bella, Giorgio, Selesta,
Antonia ? Turkish oils all.

But organizations such as the European Economic Community and the International
Olive Oil Council (of which Italy is a member but Turkey is not) and the World
Customs Organization are changing all that. As a result of their efforts, we are
starting to see the origins of olive oils on cans and bottles, albeit in very
fine print.

But that's only half the battle. The other half is to put Turkish names on
Turkish oils to be sold in the United States. In this regard, Turkey is moving
in the same direction as Spain, though it is several years behind. While still
selling olive oil to Italian and American producers, who will repackage it,
Spain is increasingly keeping its best oils for Spanish labels. At the time of
my trip, I was told that the only Turkish-labeled olive oil in the United States
was made by Taris. Subsequently, I was sent a bottle of Olive Farm olive oil, an
estate-bottled Turkish oil. You can buy it by mail order at 1-888-380-8018.

Behind Extra Virgin Oil

How good is Turkish olive oil? In general, the oils I tasted were quite pleasant
but not exceptional. They are the kind of oils you would use for everyday
cooking, especially since the price is generally reasonable. Ironically, the two
best oils I sampled are not yet available in the United States. One is from one
of the largest producers of table olives in Turkey, Ardes, which sells most of
its olives to Europe, especially Germany. The brand name of the Ardes olive oil
is Zeyno and it is sold only in two company stores, one in the city of Izmir,
the other in Istanbul.

The second oil is made by Dr. Yahya Laleli, who is as passionate about making
olive oil as Robert Mondavi is about making wine. Laleli, who is a physician and
owns a laboratory testing company, has bought small olive presses and other
equipment from Italy. He has also had his oil tested by the Amministrazione
Provinciale di Siena in Tuscany to verify that the oil meets Italian standards
as extra virgin oil.

(Extra virgin oil must have less than 1 percent oleic acid, a monounsaturated
fatty acid that studies show lowers overall blood cholesterol and raises
high-density lipoproteins, or the "good" component of cholesterol. Oils that
have between 1 percent and 3 percent oleic acid are considered to be virgin
oils. Oils previously labeled "pure" and now simply called "olive oil" are
refined oils and contain 1 percent to 1.5 percent oleic acid. Most olive oil
sold in the United States is pure. The rest is extra virgin. Little or no virgin
oil is seen in the United States because virgin oil is typically added back to
the refined "olive oil" to bring its oleic acidity down and to add some of the
flavor that was lost in the refining process.)

Laleli extra virgin olive oil could easily fetch $20 a 750-ml bottle in a
gourmet shop in the United States. The reasons for this quality are not
surprising. Laleli does what quality olive oil producers in Tuscany do. (In
fact, he's had his olives tested and has found they are the same as those used
in Tuscany.) Laleli scrupulously avoids using any damaged olives because even a
few bad olives can spoil the taste of top quality extra virgin oil. He uses cold
pressing, never above 37 degrees Centigrade, because heat (as well as light and
air) are the enemies of olive oil. To retain maximum flavor Laleli doesn't
filter his oil but allows any sediment to gradually settle to the bottom of
storage tanks. The resulting oil is transported by gravity for bottling because
pumping can damage the delicacy of the oil. If Turkish olive oil wants to make
any significant strides in quality, more producers will have to follow Laleli's

Laleli also makes a delicious garlic oil that is superior to any I've tasted.
The reason is that he presses the garlic with the olives to integrate the taste.
He does the same with mandarin oranges for a lovely oil that would be perfect on
salads. If you're ever in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, look for Laleli's
store, Korfez 'den, which is the only place where his oils are available.

Health Benefits

Most of the Turkish olive oil producers I talked to were quick to point out the
heart-healthy benefits of olive oil. As a physician, Laleli was particularly
conscious of olive oil's health benefits, contained primarily in its antioxidant
properties. To keep his oil's antioxidant properties as high as possible, Laleli
picks his olives early (usually in November) because as olives mature, their
antioxidants go down. He also tries to pick at night, while the olives are cool.
And he processes them immediately, before they are allowed to ferment.

Incidentally, Laleli was at odds with other Turkish olive oil producers on one
major aspect of olive oil's health benefits. It has long been assumed that one
gets the health benefits of olive oil whether the oil is heated for cooking or
used at room temperature, in salads for example. However, Laleli contends that
most of olive oil's antioxidant properties are obtained only when the oil is
used in its raw state. This makes sense, since heat breaks down the flavor of
olive oil as well.

Laleli's facility is located near the town of Taylieli in the area of Ayvalik
along the Aegean, the prime olive oil producing region in Turkey. (Olives and
oil are also produced on the southern coast of Turkey along the Mediterranean.)
Though some 86 varieties of olives are grown in Turkey, the Edremit olive is the
primary one for olive oil.

Sam Gugino writes a food column for Wine Spectator magazine. He is former food
editor of the San Jose Mercury News and has also written for The New York Times,
Cooking Light and other publications.

No comments: