Olive oil, that most ancient and revered of foods, is experiencing some rocky times in the new world order. In recent weeks the world price for olive oil has sunk to a 10-year low, further deflating prospects for farmers in the (already indebted) historic producer countries of Spain, Italy and Greece.
While Spain still produces 46% of world olive oil, Italy 18% and Greece 12%, production is expanding in countries with lower labour costs, including China and India. This is one factor in falling world prices, along with a severe glut of European olive oil. [This article in the Guardian has more details].
But as well as being an emerging competitor to the traditional producer countries, China is a developing market for olive oil consumption too. China is buying 25% more European olive oil than it did last year.
The industry wants to see olive oil consumption growing globally, and with western markets now, err, saturated, non-western palates are their primary target.
A report by the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade on the Chinese market says olive oil is the fastest growing oil in China, though it still makes up less than 1% of vegetable oil sales. It says the challenge is to convert middle class Chinese consumers from occasional to daily users of olive oil – falling for it in the same way middle class consumers in western countries have over the last generation or two [a summary of the report appears in this Olive Oil Times news story].
Will we start seeing olive oil and other Mediterranean influences on Chinese regional cooking, just as we have on western cooking styles, like American, British and New Zealand?
It was olive oil’s health benefits that won over western consumers, and that’s what’s most attractive for Chinese consumers too. (And for both sets, you could probably throw in the backdrop of idyllic Mediterranean imagery and ancient history that olive oil conjures up that rapeseed or rice bran oil simply can’t compete with).
The Mediterranean Diet study begun in the 1950s turned US and northern European consumers on to southern Mediterranean flavours – and olive oil in particular. This study showed that heart disease was much lower in countries where less meat and saturated fats, and more grains, pulses, nuts, vegetables and olive oil, were consumed.
As outlined in How Italian Food Conquered the World by John F. Mariani, by the 1980s chefs were using olive oil in the Italian-influenced cooking that was now becoming dominant (swinging away from French) in fine dining. Cookbooks started to reflect the changeover from butter to olive oil.
By the 1990s, with extensive media attention and price drops, olive oil had reached the mass market.
However while our blander western cuisines were ripe for adaptation to Mediterranean flavours, it will be interesting to see how Chinese cooks with distinctive regional cooking styles will use the oil. According to the Spanish report, many Chinese consumers feel that olive oil is too strong a flavour to complement their cuisine – especially the extra virgin olive oil, although consumers there do understand that that is the superior quality oil.
The quality question overlays everything else that’s happening in olive oil. For decades, as olive oil has become a mass market product in the west, bulk oil producers have been adding cheaper vegetable oils to olive oil, or producing chemically extracted olive oil, or storing the oil too long, and misleading consumers as to what they are buying. For new markets like China, adulterated olive oil threatens to undermine its reputation as a prestige product.
But it’s a problem everywhere.
A book released earlier this year, Extra Virginity, by investigative journalist Tom Mueller sparked a lot of media and consumer scrutiny of olive oil with revelations of how much fraud there is in the industry [for more information see extravirginity.com]. Fair Go in New Zealand recently exposed some of the inferior imported olive oils being sold here [view episode here].
But good olive oil remains a joy to behold, one of the world’s most pure and ancient foods. Here’s a guide to choosing the good stuff.