Meet Joanne Lacina of Olive Oil Lovers

By Maria Lovchina | Photograph: Franziska Schirmer Lewis | 20.08.2019

In today’s profile, we spoke to Joanne Lacina, olive oil enthusiast, sommelier, food safety expert, president and founder of Olive Oil Lovers, about entrepreneurship, her go-to olive oils, outstanding quality, as well as common myths and misconceptions to be dispelled.


– Can you tell us a little bit about how Olive Oil Lovers got started?

– I myself have been working in the olive oil industry for almost twelve years. I first began on the manufacturing side of the business as an importer and bottler here in the New York area. I was meeting a lot of people in the industry during that time as I still do now, among them a lot of small producers who were very innovative in making really outstanding quality oils. When working on a manufacturing side, you are trying to sell branded product direct to supermarkets and in that channel of doing business in olive oil – a very price-competitive field – buyers are very often looking for the lowest-price product regardless of quality. This can become very disheartening, and unfortunately creates a lot of room for dishonesty, fraud and misinformation to the consumers. So I decided to do something different.

I wanted to move away from that very highly competitive industry – the manufacturing-distributor-supermarket side, – and start working with producers from around the world, who had exceptional product that I knew would never make it to a supermarket nor should their products be sold in a supermarket, because it’s just a different type of market.

I realized that olive oil can be sold online, because everything is going online these days and more and more people are buying food products online in particular. It’s also very difficult for American consumers to be able to purchase and find high-quality oils throughout the country – their local supermarket may not have anything like that. By selling online, we are able to get this really fantastic quality oils into any household across the US. It was kind of an experiment that has gone quite well.

– What is it about olive oil that you love so much?

– Eating it! It’s the obvious! Being American and growing up here in the States, I was just raised on very generic tasting oil, that was all that we knew, if we were even consuming olive oil. So when I spent a couple of years in Greece in my twenties, that was the first time that I was exposed to olive oil that tasted amazing, oil that you want to just dip your bread in and eat nothing else all day because it was so good. I realized that olive oil has flavor and is actually really tasty! It’s so good when you just put it straight on your food, on your fish, on your vegetables, on your bread. It really transforms the flavor of what you are eating, it enhances it. So that’s what’s really fun, if you will, about olive oil. It’s a lot like wine in a sense where the flavor profile of an olive oil will vary depending on the variety that it’s been crushed from. You can really have fun experimenting with the different flavor profiles of different olive varieties, learning how they pair with and enhance the food that you are eating. It is just a very fun and delicious product and ingredient!

Top left and top right: At the mill of Mueloliva in Priego de Córdoba with Managing Director, Mateo Muela
Bottom left: Sampling fresh oil with José Gálvez, director of Oro Bailen in Jaén, Spain
Bottom right: With José Manuel Muela at Mueloliva in Priego de Córdoba

– What are the three most common misconceptions about olive oil among consumers?

– There are so many! Of course the first one that always comes to my mind is this idea that you cannot heat olive oil, meaning you can’t cook with it. So what are they doing in Greece, Italy, Spain, Tunisia, France and Turkey and all these countries, where people have been cooking with olive oil for centuries? They are some of the healthiest people in the world! Where did we get that idea that it is suddenly bad for you, when it’s just not? Any oil, any fat, once it is heated too high will begin to smoke, so it’s just a matter of heating the oil below its smoking point. The proper temperature for frying is about 180 C, but the smoking point for olive oil is about 210 C. So this idea that it creates toxins and is bad for you when you cook with it – it is just a big misconception. It’s the only oil that I use, and it’s the main oil that most Mediterranean countries use to cook with, so it’s absolutely fine.

Another thing… well, it is not a misconception so much. There is a lot of talk about olive oil being healthy, or other oils being healthy, because of the monounsaturated fats. People would talk about canola (rapeseed), corn or soy oil being healthy for instance, but it’s just processed in a very different way than olive oil. Something that a lot of consumers do not know, is how olive oil is produced: it’s really just, quite literally, the fruit juice of the crushed olive fruit. So it maintains a lot of its vitamins, natural nutrients and antioxidants. So not only is it a healthy source of monounsaturated fat, but it is also a fantastic source of antioxidants known as polyphenols as well. A lot of studies have shown these specific polyphenols have a wide range of health benefits. I wish more people knew that it is quite different from other oils in that sense.

Another thing that frustrates me is something called «the olive oil fridge test». Sometimes I’m reading articles and people still say that if you want to know that your olive oil is authentic, put it in the fridge and if it doesn’t solidify then it’s not authentic. This myth just needs to stop, there is no basis for this whatsoever! The UC Davis Olive Centre did a study revealing that olive oil is a complex profile of fatty acids and natural waxes that reacts differently to cool temperatures. Every oil will begin to become cloudy or solidify once it gets cold, however, there are so many factors that can contribute to how much an olive oil will begin to solidify. It can depend on the variety of olive that it was crushed from, on the time when the olives were harvested and how the oil was extracted, and things like that. From my own experience, I have two different varieties of extra virgin olive oil in bulk from two different regions: one will absolutely solidify in the cold, it’s very prone to becoming more solid in the winter than another variety will that remains more liquid at cooler temperatures. Both are very good quality oils, organoleptically and chemically, but they just react differently to cold. So I would really like for that myth to go away.

– What is your favorite olive oil? Does it depend on your mood or season?

I always answer that question the same way. If you asked me what my favorite wine is, it depends on what my mood is, the season, what I’m eating – am I eating fish or meat, or soup, or is it winter or summer? Everything like that matters. I do have some favorite oils that are kind of my go-to oils, the oil that you can’t go wrong with. Like Hojiblanca from Spain. It is just a fantastic variety that I think pairs well with everything. I love a good Frantoio from Tuscany, or Koroneiki from Greece – an excellent everyday oil to cook with and use for salads and dressings. For me, these are all go-to oils that I can feel confident recommending to anyone with any type of palate or preference.

– What should a good quality olive oil taste like? What advice could you give to those consumers who may be not so familiar with that flavor?

– That’s exactly the thing. I think some people think too much, or they want to see a lab report, they want to see the numbers, know what’s the acidity, the peroxides, and things like that. Those things of course are important but not everyone has access to the chemical analysis for every oil out there. So really the most important thing is to know what you are tasting. And to me, it’s quite simple: if the oil tastes good to your palate, if it has pleasant fruitiness, if it is something you enjoy tasting the flavor of, it is ok. If the oil has flavors or aromas that are unpleasant, such as rancidity, that is not a good thing. If the oil is kind of rancid, I always think it smells like a box of crayons. Oil should not smell earthy or what I call “skunky”. It’s not a pleasant smell or taste. This is a common affliction of a lot of restaurants who want to save money: they buy a high quality piece of fish, cook it just right, put it on your table and say: Yeah, now put some rancid fusty oil on it! That’s going to ruin the entire experience, you know! It is important to just look for that pleasant flavor, and if there is anything off about the aroma or the flavor of an oil – then it is just not good.

I also always encourage to look for flavors of actual fruit when smelling and tasting as oil: green apple, banana or dried fruits, or vegetal flavors such as garden tomato or tomato leaf, hickory, arugula, lettuces, or herbs such as mint, oregano – any natural flavors and aromas. Again, if you’re smelling and tasting something like dirty socks, mud or crayons – that is not a good sign.

With Managing Director, Jorge Miguel Petit, of Masia el Altet in Alicante, Spain

– What would you say are some of the most challenging aspects of your work?

– Well, I think as I said earlier, some of those misconceptions and myths, that it is just important to educate consumers about. Also, again, because I come from a manufacturing background, there is a lot of fraud going on out there. It is a difficult product in the US to really regulate. Can our Food and Drug Administration really test and sample every batch of oil that comes into the US, or that is on a supermarket shelf? No! They are more concerned with products that can actually make you sick and cause you harm. A poor quality olive oil just won’t taste very good, it might ruin your food, but it won’t cause you any health problems, so therefore it is not the highest concern of our FDA to regulate and test. So a lot of really inferior product ends up on our supermarket shelves. And not just inferior… All too often, I look at a bottle of oil that is labeled Extra Virgin olive oil, and it is selling at a very low price. Because I watch the commodity market for olive oil every day, I know what the market price of the raw product is. So when I see a bottle of olive oil that is bottled, labeled, shipped and sitting on a retail shelf with a price around or below the cost of the raw product itself, I don’t know what’s in that bottle, but it is not Extra Virgin olive oil. That is the most common thing that I see. That’s very disheartening because the consumers are being cheated from their money and they’re not experiencing what a good olive oil really is. I think that anyone in the olive oil industry would agree that battling the fraud and finding buyers who are educated and care about the quality of the product, not just the price – is definitely one of the most challenging aspects of being in the olive oil industry in general.

– What are the oil must haves in the kitchen at your home? Do you think we can replace butters, other oils and fats with Extra Virgin olive oil?

– You know what, I love a good butter! I think everyone should have a good butter in the fridge. There are reasons to use butter and there are reasons to use olive oil. I really wouldn’t say you should use one or the other. I love them both equally. But I am in the olive oil business and I love encouraging people to consume certain kinds of oil, teaching them how to use them. I will be biased and say I don’t use any other oil other than olive oil. I just think there are so many ways to use it!

Generally speaking, I encourage everyone to use three different Extra Virgin olive oils. There is no reason to use an olive oil which is a refined oil. In the US market it is called simply “Olive oil” or “Lite olive oil”. It is made up mostly of olive oil that has been refined, and doesn’t have much flavor or health characteristics at all. There is no reason to use that product.

You can really use Extra Virgin olive oil exclusively. But a lot of people think that it is expensive. Sure, it is higher in price than some seed oils, but again you are getting flavor out of it and it is a very healthy product.

As an everyday oil – an oil you can sauté with, or bake with, or make simple salad dressings with – I recommend a good price point oil that is of good quality, with medium-fruitiness, that you can buy in a larger volume format, like a one-liter bottle or even a five-liter tin. I very often recommend Greek Koroneiki for that. Greek oil is a really good value oil, it has a nice flavor profile that won’t overpower the food you’re cooking but still has a nice flavor. You can use it in a salad dressing or put on top of vegetables. It’s a good quality and a low price Extra Virgin olive oil that you don’t feel guilty using to cook with or using in larger amounts in the kitchen.

So you should always have a good bottle of an everyday-use Extra Virgin Olive oil, and then have two finishing oils: One oil that is really peppery and robust, like a Spanish Picual or Italian Mariolo, something with a lot of pungency and flavor that you can use to finish more complex-flavored dishes, like meats and stews; and another finishing oil that is a more lighter fruity oil, like a Spanish Arbequina, or Sicilian Nocellara, or again, a Greek Koroneiki, that you can use to dress lighter-flavored foods like steamed vegetables and fish and things like that. You wouldn’t want to put pungent oil on a delicate piece of broiled fish. If you have those three Extra Virgin olive oils in your kitchen cabinet, I think you’re good.

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