Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Immersed in Olive Oil
When my son, Cameron, was still in grade school, he used to puzzle the mothers of his buddies whenever he was invited over to play. I would frequently hear from one mom or another that Cameron had a rather unusual request at snack time. While other kids were clamoring for milk and cookies, my son would ever so politely ask for bread and olive oil. He preferred not just any olive oil: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and the higher the quality the better. Sometimes we would stop by Williams & Sonoma and taste the selection of olive oils set out in little dishes on the counter. Cameron always zeroed in on the most intense, flavorful, and usually most expensive option. One may wonder if there really is that much difference between the olive oils out there on the market. What is really in the bottle? Is it worth paying more money for the so-called Super Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oils? Quite recently I had the chance to find out.
On a frosty cold January morning, I set out along the gravel path that led from my accommodations in St. Helena, in the heart of California’s wine country, skirting rows of neatly trimmed vineyards on my way to the world renowned Culinary Institute of America. I arrived at Greystone, gaping in awe at the imposing castle-like edifice that houses the CIA, once the Christian Brothers winery. I grabbed my badge and a cup of coffee and settled into a seat in the spacious amphitheater with over one hundred other retailers, wholesalers and foodservice professionals for a seminar entitled: “Olive Oil Flavor & Quality.”
Ten hours, thirty speakers, and twenty olive oils later, I emerged tired and almost saturated with olive oil but enlightened from this fascinating course presented by the CIA and the UC Davis Olive Oil Center, in collaboration with the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT). I learned that yes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, there are vast differences between olive oils on the market today, and that much of the oil being bottled, labeled, and sold as Extra Virgin Olive Oil (or EVOO) is actually adulterated or mislabeled in some way. Some of it is even old or rancid. Tom Mueller, an expert in the area of olive oil fraud and author of the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, explains that this precious commodity, once the symbol of purity, has become a deeply corrupt industry in the face of today's lax protections. Cheating is commonplace; lower grade oils are mixed in with EVOO’s, color is added to enhance the look of the oil, or old olives from the ground are used instead of fresh, just -picked olives.
We had the opportunity to experience first hand the differences between fresh, fusty and rancid extra virgin olive oils. The term “fusty” is used to describe oil made from olives that have been stored in bags too long and have started the fermentation process. Tasting a number of fusty and rancid oils was actually quite valuable because I can more easily recognize a culprit. Since olive oil is such a perishable commodity susceptible to light, heat, and oxygen, there is a good chance that you will find rancid oil served unknowingly at even the finest restaurants. To make sure that only the freshest, purest oils are available to their customers, many retail stores and restaurants are beginning to check their supplies more often for freshness and are even sending samples to testing facilities to verify that the oil is 100% extra virgin. In order to be considered a true EVOO, the oil must meet specific criteria, such having a free acidity (oleic acid) of no more than .8% and being without sensory defect. The Super Premium EVOO’s are in another class altogether. These high-end premium oils generally have no more than a .3% free fatty acid level and have excellent sensory attributes of taste and aroma.
Tasting the fresh Super-Premium oils was much more enjoyable. We sampled products from several different countries including Italy, Spain, and Greece as well as local oils from California. When we sipped and inhaled the “novello” or new harvest oils from the first olives of the season, one presenter commented that it sounded like a flu clinic in the amphitheater: coughing and sputtering everywhere from the pepper sensation in our throats! After drizzling the same oil on a winter salad however, the grassiness and pepper of the fresh young oil melded with the greens and parmesan perfectly, creating a balanced combination. During our breaks we continued to experience the Super Premiums liberally applied to every kind of food imaginable: avocados and orange marmalade on toast, almond gazpacho with grapes, grilled dry aged Five Dot Ranch beef, and even chocolate olive-oil mousse!
One of the highlights of the day for me was a presentation by Paul Bartolotta, the Chef of BARTOLOTTA, Ristorante di Mare at the Wynn Las Vegas. He demonstrated several techniques for preparing seafood and how to use olive oil as a supporting role in cuisine. He selected a delicate Super Premium Ligurian olive oil rather than a peppery “novello.” Later, at lunchtime, he served us his creations, including a whole fish cooked in an aromatic sea salt crust. I was also delighted to view a slide presentation by Nancy Harmon Jenkins and came home with her latest cookbook: The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health, a volume filled with heart- healthy olive oil-based recipes.
By the end of the day, I had tasted twenty different olive oils, from the mediocre to the finest in the world. I left Greystone that evening practically glistening but more informed about extra virgin olive oils and why the best ones are worth the investment. Now I am putting olive oil on practically everything. It adds flavor, health and richness to almost every dish. No wonder Cameron went for the bread and oil at snack time!
~ Cheri Scolari