Olive oil crisis looms: How to survive soaring prices

Black olives ripening in Spain (Photo from Wikipedia)
Black olives ripening in Spain (Photo from Wikipedia)

Last year wasn’t just bad for global warming, Malaysian Airlines, or Bill Cosby — it was also the worst olive oil crop in over a decade.

The beloved, cheap, and ever-present fat we rely on for elevating the most basic of starches is expected to see soaring prices across the globe in 2015.

Though we are only just beginning to see the effects of the dismal harvest, brought on by a combination of uncharacteristic weather across the Mediterranean, and a rapid spread of pests like the olive fly, we are going to have to start thinking about changing our fat strategy.

Below are a few ideas to help you wade through the olive oil crisis in 2015.

Buy olive oil from Tunisia:

Though Tunisia has consistently fallen behind Greece, Spain, and Italy in global olive oil production, it experienced a record crop in 2014 while avoiding the worst of the olive oil blight. It is now the second largest producer, according to the Olive Oil Times (yes, that’s a real publication). As Tunisia responds to increased demand from Europe and the United States (Trader Joe’s started distributing it in 2013), exports can help the struggling economy in the country, where the olive oil industry provides employment to more than one million people, according to the USDA.

An ancient olive oil pot discovered on an archeological dig in Lamta Ribat, Tunisia. (Photo from Wikipedia by Habib M’henni)
An ancient olive oil pot discovered on an archeological dig in Lamta Ribat, Tunisia. (Photo from Wikipedia by Habib M’henni)

Try oils with higher smoking points:

Olive oil has been lauded as the centerpiece of the life-promoting Mediterranean diet: rich in antioxidants and unsaturated fats, and so good for your heart, that doctors are basically prescribing salad dressing out to the public.

But American ignorance about olive oil and how to cook with it may be wasting all that “good fat” on a low smoke point. Extra-virgin olive oil beings to smoke at about 325 degrees Fahrenheit — about 100 degrees below high-heat oils like safflower, peanut and canola. Once the oil hits this point, the fats and delicate enzymes begin to break down and produce carcinogenic free radicals, making the health benefits null and the flavor rancid. Next time you’re searing a steak, roasting vegetables at high heat, or stir-frying, thank the olive oil crisis and choose a different, neutral-flavored oil.

Don't use olive oil if you're cooking at high heat. (Photo by Anna Goren)
Don’t use olive oil if you’re cooking at high heat, unless you want to eat free radicals. (Photo by Molly Goren)

Use butter:

No further explanation necessary.

Butter vs Olive Oil
Duh. (Photo by Anna Goren)

Branch out:

Though olive oil is lovely, there are dozens of other fats that are rising on the food scene, and 2015 might be the year to try one. Replace olive oil, often competing for descriptors like ‘nutty’, ‘spicy’, or ‘sweet’,  with equally forward flavors — avocado, walnut, or hazelnut oil — also rich in good fats and vitamins. The price point will hover around a well-flavored, quality olive oil during a shortage year — about $10 – $15 for a 500 ml bottle.

Old-school animal fats are back in style, too — try frying eggs or potatoes in rendered duck or chicken fat (schmaltz), clarified butter (ghee), or yesterday’s bacon fat, and you might never go back. People have been doing it for centuries.

Mmmm, bacon fat. (Photo from Flickr by Jason Sandeman)
Mmmm, bacon fat. (Photo from Flickr by Jason Sandeman)

Beware of fraud:

Though olive oils are as delicate and varied as wines, Americans are far less discerning with taste. As a result, the industry is rife with marketing scandal. Employees at Sotto Vocce, where you have probably been caught shamelessly dunking dozens of crusts of bread into sample goblets of infused oil in the Pike Place Market, have been careful to taste every incoming shipment from last year’s harvest, in search of fraud.

They explained that typically, farmers will harvest olives early in the season, when the flavor is premium but the yield is smaller. In a tough year like last, farmers wait until the end of the season to squeeze as much as they can out of the supply, leaving a dearth of truly premium olive oils across Europe.

So how to not get scammed? Try a small supplier, who can attest to when the oil came in, how it tasted, and how long it has sat around.

A olive oil sample bar at Whole Foods. (Photo from Wikipedia)
A olive oil sample bar at Whole Foods. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Two local olive oil purveyors in town, Queen Anne Olive Oil Company and Sotto Vocce, weighed in on the anticipated effects of the bad harvest locally. Both were bracing for bad prices — “we’re like everyone else, just waiting,” said Randy Webster, who works in the Sotto Vocce warehouse in Spanaway, awaiting shipments.

So far, they seem to have weathered it. Larry Graham, who opened Queen Anne Olive Oil two years ago with his brother, says that he’s heard rumors about a terrible crop, but so far has only seen slight increases in prices from his supplier: about 10%. Graham guessed that since his small store was already purchasing such high quality oils at such a premium (a 750 m bottle of Spanish olive oil costs $25) that the price difference wouldn’t change drastically.

So if you can’t live without it, there’s somewhere to go buy olive oil.

And remember, if the Seahawks taught us anything — there’s always next year.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article, Anna. With apologies for the shameless plug, have you heard of our company, http://www.pomora.com? We offer the opportunity to adopt an olive tree and receive the oil from that tree throughout the year. Delicious oil; cast-iron provenance; and the money supports independent farmers and their communities. We think it’s pretty cool.

  2. Your intelligent, thoughtful article restores my respect for Globalist. My respect had been diminished by the dismal “Bellydance” piece. Thank you

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