In a sun-dappled grove in Puglia, 68-year-old Saverio De Carlo, wearing a flat cap, his eyes keen behind thick glasses, is inspecting his olives, just as he has every morning for over 50 years. The centuries-old trees near the town of Bitritto are being pruned. Planted by Saverio’s ancestors, they stand between almonds, lemons and figs, their fat grey gnarly trunks rising out of a rippling spread of wildflowers.
Here in the heel of Italy, the fruit is picked from October to December. Within hours, it is pressed on stone at the De Carlo mill, the juice separated into water and oil in a centrifuge, and (using no additives, no heat, no refining) transformed into luminous green-gold extra virgin olive oil. It is the gourmet’s friend, prized for its flavour and health-giving properties-and for the images it evokes of bucolic, traditional, Italian family farms like this.
Italy produces most of the world’s highest-quality extra virgin olive oil. Unfortunately most of it fails to meet the recognized standards set by the International Olive Council.
“What you see on supermarket shelves is frode!” says Saverio’s wife, Grazia, 62, as she prepares lunch at their home above the mill. “A scam!”
Puglia is the world’s top region for the production of extra virgin olive oil, which is in great demand around the world. But the De Carlo family and other local farmers who produce the real thing are struggling, unable to compete on volume or price with the flood of inferior, falsely labelled oil.
“People have abandoned their land,” says Grazia. “Skills are being lost. Saverio’s family has had a mill here since 1598, and he refuses to give up. Olives are our history and our passion, so we make sacrifices and we carry on.”
Europe consumes 1.85 million tonnes of olive oil a year. But after a disastrous 2014 olive harvest, extra virgin oil became scarcer than ever in Italy and the production and distribution of mislabelled oil quadrupled to maintain supply, according to Coldiretti, Italy’s largest farming lobby group.
Cheap olive oil from Tunisia, Morocco, Spain and Greece is often simply relabelled as Italian. Such oil may not come from Italian groves but it is at least made from olives. Some counterfeit olive oil has been found to contain everything from canola and hazelnut to soybean oil, colored with chlorophyll.
“Extra virgin” is frequently the cheaper “virgin” oil, bulked up with olive pomace oil (extracted from old olive pulp, using solvents), doctored, deodorized and flavoured with beta-carotene.
Antonio Barile is a national executive at the CIA, the Italian Farmers Confederation. “If you consider Italy produces an average of 400,000 tonnes of extra virgin a year,” he says, “but sells 900,000 to 1 million tonnes of Italian extra virgin, you see the scale of the fraud.”