Sunday, August 31, 2014

An oil change

The E.U. took a lot of flack about banning curved bananas. Actually they didn't specify the shape they simply used curvature as a measure of quality. The Eurocrats learned though that micromanagement was just grist to the mill for the tabloid hacks. Not so the Spanish Government. There's a Spanish law about olive oil. Spain asked the E.U. to make it a European wide law. Not likely said Brussels.

Spain produces a lot of olive oil. It's the largest producer of olive oil in the world. Italy comes next, though they are a net importer, then Greece. Ask any Spaniard and they will tell you, scandalised, about the way that the Italians buy Spanish oil in bulk and put it into bottles with Italian labels because Italian oil commands a far higher price than Spanish brands in overseas markets.

Extra virgin olive oil is the best, produced from the finest olives, whilst virgin oil is made with slightly riper or damaged olives which adversely affects the taste. Olive oil or pure olive oil is usually a mix of simple pressed and refined oils. European legislation says that any oil labelled virgin must pass a taste test and have been extracted from the olive by pressing rather than by chemical refinement.

Olive oil is an expensive product and it earns a lot of foreign exchange in a growing market. Spain has loads of tourists who taste the olive oil that is there on the restaurant table to dress their salad. “Hmm, this oil is great, we must buy some” is good for both the tourist and olive oil businesses. But restaurateurs can be a sneaky and filling a bottle that says extra virgin oil with cheaper substitutes is not beyond them. What's more there have been plenty of olive oil scandals over the years with cheaper oils passed off as the good stuff. You may still recall the oil scandal in Spain in 1981 which killed 1,000 people and injured 25,000 more. Then rapeseed oil was sold as olive oil and it supposedly poisoned all those people. Although it now seems likely that the real culprit was pesticide used on tomatoes in Almeria the folk memory is still of oil not of pesticides. So the Spanish Government took a little time off from worrying about employment or civil rights and wrote a law about oil in catering. The law came into force on 1st January 2014.

Oil in restaurants now has to come in factory sealed, non-refillable bottles with the producers label in place. There's nothing to stop the restaurant using poor quality or different oil but they can no longer pour it into unmarked containers or suggest that it is Spanish extra virgin oil from 1000 year old trees when it isn't. It marked the end, in restaurants and bars, of those little oil and vinegar sets that leak down the side and drip onto your freshly laundered trousers as surely as stainless steal tea pots with hinged lids slop onto the table.

In truth you still get refillable containers in lots of restaurants but if you fancy a free meal you might like to mention it to the waiter and ask for a complaints form. The lowest fine is 600€ and that can go up to 600,000€ where there is a serious attempt at fraud with a risk to public health. Unless you have very expensive dining habits giving you your meal for free is likely to be a cheaper option.

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