as so often i’m noodling with food. a hundred years ago mother got that quailed voice when i spooned spinach off my plate and checked how well it could stain a white linen napkin. now that mother is no more i can fool with food all day, and not only with spinach. so, today it’s olive oil and its very variants. everybody knows that fruit oils, but olive oils especially, are of relative notion. how olive oil is considered healthier than butter. that it is too often called ‘liquid gold’. and how, in america at least, it is often used for frying. yet what can we know of the disparate means employed in the oils which finally end bottled up on our shelves. by name alone. its source aside. certain pure olive oils are in fact jacked up. hazelnut oil or oil of lesser quality is frequently mixed in to change color, taste and most certainly quality. such processed oils can range from delightful to despicable and the only way to find out what pours from the bottle is to taste it. use unsalted bread, dip it into the oil and see what you like. questionable phrasing on labels, like pure extra virgin won’t give you a clue neither to flavor nor the possible use of the content. as the name might suggest, the ‘extra’ ought to mean pure, if not vestal, at least, yet upon research the ‘extra’ has little to do with such purity. or a label might say ‘extra virgin italian’. and the oil within could simply be a mix of oils from anywhere. a googling definition covers all bets. what gets to be ‘italian’ can come from olives grown in greece, or for that matter in some argentine hemisphere. serious research offers further vagaries, standards for grading are rarely enforced nor are true label laws in existence for virtually any country of origin. a ship might take on oil in spain, head north to marseilles for some ‘french’, on to board sicilian, and further to greece. individual tanks could be topped off en route with some varietal, any from here and some from there, simply to save on board space. the ship would unload its tanks possibly in the italian port of brindisi, by which time it would be anyone’s guess which tank holds whose oil. ultimately an arrival and commencing production might qualify the oil within as ‘italian’. most of this holds true for the less expensive, the seven-dollar-a-quart olive oils.
oils not processed are rare these days and true first grade, extra virgin, cold pressed olives come at a price. such oils are typically extracted from a mix of olive varieties named frantoio, correggiolo, moraiolo and leccino. these greens are hand picked when ripe, usually in january. they are grown at reliable orchards, from well culled trees and are not processed, other than washing, pressing and to some extent filtering. to avoid spoilage these olives are pressed the day they are picked. today’s methods are often no longer traditional and rarely employ old style stone crushing, but instead use hydraulic presses and centrifugal decanting. prominent olive producing regions in italy, like tuscany, are famous and more liable for label, content and quality. such estates are quality controlled by distinct families, who have owned and managed their groves for hundreds of years. exceptional oil might also come from nouveau riche olive regions of northern california, where some oils are still hand produced.
which of such oils i might use becomes a matter of taste and use. certainly of financial efforts. quality or heritage make little difference in oils used for cooking or frying, as their smoking point of 400 degrees is better suited for such.
the flavours of the extra virgins are defined, sometimes labeled, as ‘mild’, ‘semi-fruity’ and ‘full bodied’. or as sweet, buttery, peppery or grassy. my present favorite is from chianti, a production of 'badia a coltibuono', with a harvest date of december 2008, released in spring 2009. the cultivars are frantoio, leccino and pendolino. first cold pressed, extra virgin with traditionally low acidity of 0.2%.
mild oils are for salad dressing, a mayonnaise or simply a drizzle on pasta. not too strong, but with some olive defining fragrance. the semi-fruity: this would be extra virgin, from a reliable source, italian or northern californian. these kinds of oil are terrific on chicken, or a roast pork tenderloin, where garlic is heavy and thorough. the very robust oils, those fully flavored, fruity and darkly green renderings, i ooze over tomatoes, freshly sliced, or splash to revive a sad ratatouille. some say these oils are for sauteed eggplant, or grilled frying peppers, yes, and over shrimp, or in that soup, where leek and potatoes have faded, where the full bodied flavor of olives rouse yesterdays fragrance.