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EU olive oil wars

Posted May 20 2013 12:00am
The latest olive oil news to hit the headlines is that the EU has decided to ban the use or refillable olive oil dispensers in eateries all over Europe. So the classic foursome found on every taverna table is set to become a threesome. The news has been met mainly with scorn by the European press
 Located at a summer restaurant by the sea in Hania
"They should let the people decide what olive oil bottles they want to use and not dictate uniformity from the center," said Paul Nuttall, a member of the European parliament from Britain's UK Independence Party. (Source:  http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite1_1_17/05/2013_499485  )
Sam Clark, the food writer, chef and proprietor of the award winning Moro restaurant in London, told The Daily Telegraph that the ban would stop him serving his customers specially selected Spanish olive oil in dipping bowls with bread when they are seated at their table. "This will affect us. It is about choice and freedom of choice. We buy our oil, which we have selected from a farm in Spain, to serve our customers," he said(Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/eu/10064787/EU-to-ban-olive-oil-jugs-from-restaurants.html  )
"If the European Union was logical and properly run, people wouldn't be so anti-Europe. But when it comes up with crazy things like this, it quite rightly calls into question their legitimacy and judgment," said Marina Yannakoudakis, a British Conservative member of the European Parliament. (Source:  http://www.enetenglish.gr/?i=news.en.home&id=956  )
Critics have accused the EU of unwarranted meddling at a time of economic crisis. (Source:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22579896  )
Britain, which regularly cites perceived meddling from Brussels as the reason for its strained relationship with Europe, abstained [from the vote]. (Source: 
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/19/eu-banning-olive-oil-jugs-restaurants  )
Enzo Sica, owner of Italian restaurant Creche des Artistes close to the EU quarter of Brussels, said the rules would prevent him from buying his extra virgin olive oil direct from a traditional supplier in Italy. "They say they're thinking about consumers, but this will increase costs for us and our customers as well. In this time of crisis, surely they should be worrying about other things rather than stupid stuff like this. (Source: 
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/18/us-eu-oliveoil-idUSBRE94H09820130518  )
On the face of it, it sounds like a stupid law, meddling with an age-old custom in an attempt to standardise a habit. But it's actually already been implemented in Portugal and some parts of Italy; the proposal has been accepted by many other countries, including the main producers of olive oil (Spain, Italy, and Greece). Germany, one of the prime EU health-safety-hygiene freaks, voted against the proposed law, while the UK, another laws-and-regulations freak, abstained from voting, which can be put down indirectly to the current anti-EU stance ripping UK politics apart. The far-right who recently rose in popularity in the UK are using this proposed law to sway people against the Europeanisation of Britain. So the anti-campaigners of this law could be said to be influenced by factors other than logic.

In the meantime, the UK has become a connoisseur nation when it come to live oil quality (see http://www.organicallycooked.com/2012/01/stains-in-extra-virgin-olive-oil.html ) while Germany exports olive oil even though it isn't even a producer ( see http://www.organicallycooked.com/2012/01/stolen-heritage.html )!

The reasons for bringing in this measure are much less deviant than the excuses people have against it: customers are often fooled by being served cheap olive oil, non-refillable bottles will improve hygiene, tamper-proof packaging protects the consumer, the proposed law attempts to reassure consumers that the olive oil has not been diluted with an inferior product, among others; above all, it helps to preserve the image of olive oil, as getting what one pays for will now become more transparent to the consumer. There do seem to be many good reasons for the law after all, which is why it seemed a perfectly acceptable step to take...

A typical self-service eaterie in the UK (Ponti's, Lewisham Shopping Centre, which closed down two months after this photo was taken - a tea and coffee muffin shop opened in its place instead). Note that ALL the dressings and sauces are packaged, and in this case, none are left on the table (making that hot-headed British Conservative member of the European Parliament with the very Cretan-sounding name look a bit of a ninny now - she must be very used to sights like this in the UK). Can you imagine being served HP sauce form a refillable container? Not everyone needs or uses extra dressings. Greeks use a lot of olive oil, but this will not necessarily create a barrier to the bottling issue (there are ways to get round this law, and they are waiting to be created). 

Taking the case of the average Cretan restaurant, the olive oil used in it could possibly be the owner's own production; at any rate, it will be bought and/or stored in bulk. The average olive oil canister found on a restaurant table has a capacity of about 100-200ml, so filling up small containers sounds like extra packaging and costs, especially at a time of crisis. But the owner of the average Greek (as opposed to Cretan) restaurant will not be a producer - there are many parts of Greece that do NOT produce olive oil - so no doubt s/he is buying the olive oil they use in their business. It will come in (approximately) 17-litre canisters. From here, the crockery sitting at the tables will be filled up...

... but hang on: olive oil connoisseurs will have heard about the different uses of olive oil with different acidity levels: low acidity is good for salads, while higher acidity is better in cooking, and refined olive oil is useful in baking. If olive oil is being poured out of 17-litre canisters, it's probably being used like all-purpose flour - one size fits all, and you know how awful those clothes look on you, don't you?

It's all about gimmicks - we remember restaurants for their perks. (KOUZINA EPE, Hania)
Seriously, when you have been eating horse for beef for more than a year, surely you'd welcome a law that demands greater transparency in your food chain, especially when you live in a country where only one in five people work in agriculture, and your country imports most of its food needs out of necessity.   There can simply be no trust in the refillable bottle of extra-virgin olive oil - or the refillable sea salt dispenser, or the gourmet balsamic vinegar bottle, for that matter. Restaurant owner-producers would now be forced to label their product, certifying that it is indeed what it purports to be.

We cherish the corked wine bottle and scorn the cheap home-made bulk wine, which most Greek restaurants and tavernas use; complaints of inferior wine are often based on the use of home-brew. Over-priced bottled water is also seen as superior to tap water. So the problem with the excess packaging can be solved by recycling. We dispose so much for recycling purposes that it hardly seems an issue to throw out a few more glass/metal/aluminium/plastic vessels.

Above: Ladywell Tavern, Lewisham, London.
Below: Spanich Galleon, Greenwich, London.
You may think that choosing what wine or water to drink is up to the customer, who specifically orders it, whereas the olive oil canister is sitting on the table, waiting to be used. When it's provided for free, it doesn't actually have to be there in the first place. Restaurants may choose to serve their salads already dressed, like they usually do in Western countries - there is no need to have a canister of olive oil on the table. Restaurants are now vying for trade - it's their choice what corners they will cut. Some restaurants don't serve bread any more, which used to be a pretext for a cover charge. At the end of the day, it's up to the restaurant to make use of the laws for its benefit.

condiments wong kei london Soya sauce is often brought bottled to your table (WONG KEI, London). It may be a refillable bottle, but it can be checked for quality. If it is not the same soy sauce that is stated in the bottle, then the restaurant has to answer quite a few questions.
What about dipping bowls which are served with bread as an appetiser? If that is being paid for (and it wasn't provided for free in the first place), why not bring both the bowls and the canisters to the table, so that people can see for themselves where that oil you are serving came from? This leads to a whole new ball game - novel packaging ideas will follow on from the importance of correct labelling, which is how most olive oil snobs buy their EVOO. The new law will create more mystique around elitist culinary traditions, which can only lead to more profits.

The cost factor will figure greatly among the moaners and groaners of the restaurant trade - but the cleverest dicks will have already figured this one out ages ago, especially since Portugal is already implementing the law. Olive oil is already being transported to restaurants in canisters for cooking use. Now, they can have some of the best EVOO transported to them in the same way, in smaller vessels, which will be placed at the tables and can then be admired by the customers (for their pretty packaging), who will read the labels (to check the validity of the product), and try the oil (it had be better be good, or else...).
These bottles are part of a collection at my workplace ( www.maich.gr ) - they are very old, and the oil contained in them won't be useable now; the collection is purely for souvenir purposes.


To go that extra mile, in EU olive oil-producing countries (as opposed to EU non-producing countries like Germany and the UK, who also happen to be the greatest users of olive oil in EU non-producing countries), during the tourist season, the restaurant could encourage customers to try the olive oil in the vessel (or to take the bottle home with them as a souvenir, if they don't wish to to use extra oil in the food they were served); if the customer likes it enough to want to use it in their own food back home, they can buy more in larger containers from the restaurant itself. Who said there is no profit to be made from this gesture after all?! The possibilities are endless, in a sense; I'm only providing a taster here. And that free little bottle of olive oil - it's one of the best ways for Greece to nationalise its product!

Could the restaurant owner have a choice in the matter? There are ways to work around this issue too - what about placing an own-bottled olive oil (eg garlic, lemon, herbs, etc) on the table that the owner has scented and produced in the restaurant kitchen? I'm sure there are others already implementing this law by now, who have already solved this problem. I doubt it would raise the cost of a meal -there is no more room for raising prices in crisis-ridden EU; people are already going out for a meal less often.remember, what is provided free doesn't have to be provided at all in the first place. Olive oil could be bought to the table only if the customer asks for it. The bottom line is: would you go to a restaurant that serves inferior olive oil (or wine for that matter)? The new law is forcing the restaurant trade to clean up their act!

Olive oil is treated like gold in many countries; here in Greece, in fact, we like to call it 'green gold'. It's time we began promoting it like gold outside Greece, which will help nationlise the product and boost its image.

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