Photo courtesy of Azeite Esplendido
Photo courtesy of Azeite Esplendido

When Sheila Fitzgerald, lifelong resident of Madison Park, went hiking in northern Portugal some years back, along one of the many trails that lead to the shrine of Santiago de Compostel, she made a discovery that was gustatory rather than spiritual: The fine olive oil produced at a small grove of olive trees along her path. The owner of the property, Henrique Cardoso, invited her (and a Portuguese hiking companion, Jorge Caeiro) to stop for lunch; you can probably guess what happened next. It took four years, but Fitzgerald now has a company called Esplendido Douro, Caeiro is her business partner, and the oil they import to the U.S., Azeite Esplendido, has just won a gold medal at the world’s largest olive oil competition in New York.

The United States is the third-largest consumer of olive oil on the planet, a market approaching $2 billion a year. Does all of it have to be Italian? Hardly. For years, Whole Foods has been selling extra virgin olive oil from Turkey as well as California. Does it have to come from gnarled trees growing on a hillside in Tuscany? Hardly. Excellent oils are produced on vast, quasi-industrial groves in Spain, as well as Sicily and Puglia, even if the bottling plants put them in jars with Tuscan scenery.

There’s a lot of unnecessary mystery in the production of olive oil. Those great stone mills are picturesque but ancient history. Today’s harvested olives are ground up with large metal burrs, the paste stirred in huge tanks and the liquid extracted by centrifuge. Trader Joe’s website, in a convoluted, 1,900-word article on olive oil, calls this step “centrifugation.” TJ’s description continues: “Because oils are mixed together to achieve balance and style, judging oil by the country of origin has passed into legend. Nowadays, oils from all growing regions and countries can be blended together to produce tastes and styles that have specific uses.” So TJ’s lowest-cost oil is labeled “Packed in Italy,” which doesn’t reveal much about its origins.

Ironically, the U.S. is not part of the International Olive Council, a 50-year-old rule-making body set up by the United Nations. We rely instead on standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Still, some surprising results from the University of California, Davis, which is in the heart of America’s olive oil-producing region. In a report a year ago, UC Davis researchers found that 69 percent of imported “extra virgin” olive oil (and 10 percent of domestic oil) wasn’t what it pretended to be. Even the best known brands showed signs of adulteration (blended with inferior grades of olive oil or cheaper oils from soybeans, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds). The lone import to receive top ratings on all points was Costco’s Organic Extra Virgin Oil, which sells for one fifth the price of competing brands.

For all that, we have some of the loosest laws on earth concerning olive oil purity or honest labeling. The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have no budget for testing, let alone enforcing laws against fraud. The problem, as journalist Tom Mueller described in his book “Extra Virginity,” is the huge reward, with virtually no risk, in mislabeling the oil. “Extra virgin” has all but lost its meaning.

“We shouldn’t be scaring people away,” Mueller told me in an interview. Indeed there’s been a huge increase in olive oil sales in the U.S., thanks to publicity about the health-enhancing properties of the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is, as Mueller puts it, “an age-old food with space-age qualities that medical science is just beginning to understand.” There’s even an intriguing chemical relationship between extra virgin olive oil and the anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen. The tragedy is the temptation to dumb it down, by stripping from real extra virgin oil the specific characteristics (fruity, peppery, bitter) that make it the “real thing.” 

But back to Fitzgerald’s unadulterated Esplendido Douro. “We look forward to helping American consumers learn more about the health benefits and superior taste that come with premier olive oil,” Fitzgerald says. Darker in color than the Costco organic olive oil, deeper scented (more green fruit), Esplendido Douro is also very low in acid. It comes from the Tras-os-Montes region, one of six protected “designation of origin” zones where olives have been cultivated for over 1,000 years. 

For now, Caeiro remains in Portugal, in charge of grower relations and production, while Fitzgerald runs business development and distribution from her home in Madison Park. The oil will be distributed through a specialty food company called Milepost 65, based in Woodinville. Retail sales at Cookin’ and at Bert’s IGA. “We’ll have about 17,000 half-liter bottles to sell from the first shipment,” Fitzgerald tells me. “This award is the perfect jumping off point as we expand distribution throughout the United States.” Price will be about $25. 

Ronald Holden is a local food writer whose next book, “Forking Seattle,” comes out this summer.