Why olive oil prices are soaring and what to do about it

olives in a bowl

By Michelle Tchea18th December 2023

While extreme weather conditions in Europe have led to soaring prices of olive oil, producers and chefs are showing their resilience, as well as tips and tricks for coping.

The image of a celebrity chef dousing their Caprese salad, gazpacho or dolmas with extra-virgin olive oil is incredibly ambitious at the moment, with most Europeans facing record prices in the supermarket aisle. But why have olive oil prices risen so sharply?

For the past decade, the oldest cultivated trees on Earth have been showing their vulnerability with many of the Mediterranean’s olive groves drying up due to increasingly difficult weather conditions such as droughts and severe hailstorms leading to floods. And in 2023, the region – as well as the whole planet – experienced the hottest summer on record.

Italy, Greece and Spain, the largest olive-oil producing nations, have felt the greatest impact – as have chefs and consumers, who are baffled at what to cook with in lieu of their staple ingredient.

“I never saw in all my life a dryness like this one,” said Rossella Boeri, olive oil producer and fifth-generation owner of Olio Roi in Badalucco, Italy, referring to the drought of this past summer. “Luckily the olive trees are strong, but we are facing a really big lack of production which is reflected in our olive oil prices, which coincidentally has led to a lower consumption and demand for our olive oil.”Many of the Mediterranean's olive groves drying up due to increasingly difficult weather conditions (Credit: Yana Iskayeva)

Many of the Mediterranean’s olive groves drying up due to increasingly difficult weather conditions (Credit: Yana Iskayeva)

In Almeria, Spain, Rafael Alonso Barrau, seventh-generation farmer and owner of Oro Del Desierto confirms the declining numbers. “Last year we had 15% less than average compared to the last 20 years. We might consider this normal as olive trees produce not the same every year with alternate yearly yields the norm, but this year we had less than 45% yield and this matters a lot.”

Despite there being varying reasons for the low numbers, climate change remains the greatest villain causing the crisis, says Barrau. “The concern is that our summers are becoming longer and hotter and we believe this affects the viability of the production.”

While olive oil producers are fighting for survival, European consumers also feeling the pinch. Large companies, in what Boeri describes as “cartels”, are driving up olive oil prices, not only hurting smaller, family-run businesses, but also causing panic in supermarkets. There’s even been an increase in olive oil shoplifting. According to Mintec, raw material market forecaster and data analysis firm, prices of Spanish olive oil had risen by 115% between September 2022 and September 2023.

Although higher prices are also being felt around the world, they are hitting Europe the hardest, especially since, for many Europeans, olive oil is more than just an ingredient; it’s an irreplaceable cultural marker.man with olives

man with olives

“It is like the blood for a human being, it is a part of who I am and as a chef, it is the basis of everything I do,” said Matteo D’Elia, head chef and owner of Umami restaurant in Badalucco, Italy. “The diversity of high-quality olive oil is not only about taste, but it offers a glimpse into our terroir, just like for wine. Different regions, different soils give you such different flavours and with this we can extract both the oil and the environment that it came from – that is truly amazing for me.” 

For chef Diomis Angelos of La Muna Restaurant in Davos, Switzerland, the heart and soul of Greek food can be found in a bottle. “[Olive oil] it is the golden thread intricately weaving the tapestry of my culinary heritage,” he said. “I recall my yiayia (grandmother) in our village near Volos, [Greece], cooking Fasolakia Ladera [literally, “green beans of olive oil”] and using olive oil from our family’s ancient grove. Yiayia would start by heating a generous amount of olive oil in a pot with the aroma of the heated oil signalling that a family feast was about to begin. She’d then add finely chopped onions and garlic, letting them soften and blend with the oil, before adding fresh green beans, potatoes and ripe tomatoes.”

So, what can chefs and home cooks do if they can’t afford olive oil?Being creative in the kitchen can be a solution to mitigating the olive oil crisis (Credit: Joff Lee/Getty Images)

Being creative in the kitchen can be a solution to mitigating the olive oil crisis (Credit: Joff Lee/Getty Images)

On Greece’s largest island of Crete, Poppy Kourkoutaki, executive chef of Bacchus restaurant in Minos Beach Art Hotel believes that there really is no substitute for olive oil in her recipes, but says that by focusing on other Greek traditions and cultures (like using chef Angelos’ grandmothers slow-simmering process), Mediterranean recipes can still be perfected when olive oil is sparse. 

“For tasty food without using too much olive oil, the process matters a lot, and things like reducing the temperature to a slow simmer for stews or even using a Cretan ceramic pot called moshari sto pilino can be super important,” Kourkoutaki said. “In Crete, our ancestors used ceramic pots for centuries, and in the rural villages surrounding my restaurant overlooking Mirabello Bay, they still use them with excellent results because the pot retains the heat much better and the slow-braising technique draws out all the flavours and juices of the ingredients without the addition of too much olive oil.”

She also explained that you can actually skip the olive oil completely in slow-cooked dishes if you concentrate on making a nice bone broth. “Basically, instead of using olive oil as a source of fat, you use the fat from the meat or fish, which is an old technique of meat preservation from the days when there were no fridges, she said. “The process is not used any more as it is not really healthy when compared to our highly nutritious omega-rich extra-virgin olive oil we produce on the island of Crete, but it is a good solution when oils are more expensive and harder to find.”Italy, Greece and Spain are the largest olive-oil producing nations (Credit: Cavan Images /José Antonio Luque Olmedo/Getty Images)

Italy, Greece and Spain are the largest olive-oil producing nations (Credit: Cavan Images /José Antonio Luque Olmedo/Getty Images)

Award-winning baker, Nicola Olivieri agrees that being creative in the kitchen can be a solution to mitigating the olive oil crisis. His fifth-generation bakery, Olivieri 1882, in Arzignano, Italy, is known for its award-winning holiday bakes like panettone enjoyed during Christmas and Fugassa Veneta, a leavened Easter bread. Unlike many Italian recipes, panettone uses butter as a fat, which has inspired him to make other popular items that don’t use olive oil. “I love the flexibility of olive oil, and I don’t think I have ever made dinner without using it in at least one of my dishes. But there are other great Italian dishes to make that are culturally significant to the Mediterranean,” he said.

“For focaccia and bread products, strutto, a type of pork fat, can be a good substitute, which can be used to make breads, grissini (a type of breadstick) and even cakes. Even seed oils may also serve as a replacement,” he said. “But that being said, they will change the recipe because they are relatively neutral in flavour, so will not add the same dimension and aroma that olive oil gives.”

Cristina Brizzolari, owner of artisan rice brand Riso Buono, considers quality olive oil a primary ingredient for dishes like risotto and employs the “a little goes a long way philosophy”. “Living in Casalbeltrame, Novara, I’m lucky to be surrounded by top quality olive oil producers, so I always go directly to the farms to support fellow agriculturists,” she said. “By doing so, you can save on the amount you are using because higher-grade cold-pressed oils have a much stronger and pronounced flavour – you just need a little bit to taste the true flavours of the Mediterranean.”Most Europeans are facing record olive oil prices in the supermarket aisle (Credit: d3sign/Getty Images)

Most Europeans are facing record olive oil prices in the supermarket aisle (Credit: d3sign/Getty Images)

Fellow Italian Carina La Delfa, a pastry chef who recently opened Lumos bakery in Melbourne, http://tahapaun.com admits that in Australia, paying a premium for high-quality olive oil is not unusual, and she looks to her nonna for inspiration. “A great way to make your olive oil last longer is to use it as a garnish, such as in dressings and on top of finished pasta dishes rather than cooking with it.” Like many people using blended olive oils to help make their olive oil go further, La Delfa shares another nifty trick her Sicilian grandmother taught her: “My nonna used to keep her olives in cheaper grades of oil like vegetable oil to get the flavour of the olives without having to buy expensive oils.”

For Boeri, quality olive oil is part of a culture worth fighting for. “It has been three years in the making with droughts and severe temperatures, but we are a fifth-generation olive oil producer, and we will keep fighting the climate situation and produce excellent, high-quality olive oil like the one our family made in 1877.” 

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