Olive oil has been a staple throughout the Mediterranean for thousands of years, and world consumption doubled between 1990 and 2020 as it became a go-to cooking and finishing oil for so many chefs and home cooks. Now, global access to olive oil is being affected by extreme weather and climate change.
Though olive trees are hardy, requiring minimal water and little to no chemical intervention to combat pests (many olive-producing trees are thousands of years old), drought and wildfires have been affecting every olive-growing region in the world, driving up the global price to an all-time high of US$9364.94 per metric tonne in September. According to Statistics Canada, the price of a litre of olive oil has leapt from an average $7.77 in September, 2021, to nearly $13 as of August of 2023. (Though looking at current grocery store flyers, $13/L is not average, but on the low end of advertised sale prices. Good-quality olive oils are far pricier.)
With little to no rain throughout the summer, farmers in most olive-growing regions say yield is down to between half to as low as 10 per cent of their usual harvest. Spain produces nearly half the world’s olive oil; in September, the Olive Oil Times reported that the country produced a historic low of 663,000 tonnes in 2022/23, 54 per cent below the average of the previous four years. They anticipate production will not exceed one million tonnes in the 2023/24 growing year, according to Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
The supply isn’t likely to return to its past volume (and prices) anytime soon – though some producers are contemplating a move to more drought-resistant varieties, trees take years to establish and start consistently producing fruit. If you’re looking for alternatives for day-to-day cooking, canola and vegetable oil blends have a smoke point of about 400 F, about the same as extra-virgin olive oil. (More refined, lighter olive oils are higher – about 450 F.) In Canada, a single type of oil, such as canola or sunflower, must be labelled accordingly, and “vegetable oil” is a common name for a blend of more than one type of oil, such as soybean, canola, sunflower and safflower. (If a blend contains coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, peanut oil or cocoa butter, the oil must be specifically named in the ingredient list.) Coconut oil and sesame have a lower smoke point, around 350 F; sunflower, corn and peanut oil’s are about 450 F. Clarified butter and ghee have an even higher smoke point – with water and milk solids removed, they can withstand temperatures of about 460 F, and safflower and avocado oil around 510 F. Unrefined, cold-pressed or raw oils are more fragile, better suited to finishing dishes and making dressing.
Recipe: Same-day focaccia (without olive oil)
Use any variety of oil to make this focaccia, including clarified butter or ghee – an Indian staple that is cooked longer to produce a nuttier, more complex flavour. If you like, infuse the oil with rosemary and/or garlic by warming it on the stove with a sliced clove and/or a sprig or two of the herb; remove them before adding the fat to the dough or coating the pan.
1 cup warm water
2 tsp active dry or instant yeast
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2-3 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
1/2 tsp fine salt or 1 tsp kosher salt
canola or other vegetable oil or ghee (or a combination), for cooking
fresh rosemary, for finishing (optional)
flaky salt, to finish
Put the warm water in a large bowl, sprinkle with the yeast and let sit for a few minutes, until it dissolves.
Add the flour, oil (feel free to eyeball this – you don’t need to be precise) and salt and stir (or use the dough hook on your stand mixer) until the dough comes together, then knead by hand for a few minutes, until smooth and elastic. (It will be very tacky.)
Return the dough to the bowl, drizzle with oil and turn to coat it all over. Cover the bowl with a tea towel or plate and let sit on the counter for at least an hour, but preferably two or three. (If you want to make it in the morning for dinner, or up to a day ahead, cover and refrigerate, then take it out a couple hours before you want to bake it.)
Pour a generous amount of oil or ghee into a nine-inch round or square pan, or a similar-sized baking dish. Flatten the dough into the bottom, then flip it over so that it’s coated with fat and press until it covers the entire bottom of the pan. Poke your fingers deep into the dough, straight through to the bottom, to create deep dimples. Cover and let it sit for another hour, preheating your oven to 425 F at about the 45-minute mark.
Drizzle the dough with a bit more oil or ghee, and sprinkle with chopped rosemary and/or flaky salt. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until deep golden. Serves about 8.