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8 Hours On Olive Oil…

by David on July 23, 2007

My Mom laughed when I told her I was going to an all-day olive oil symposium.
At that moment I didn’t notice because I was too busy chirping on and on about how the speakers would include experts from the University of Florence, Milan, our own University of California at Davis, Darrell Corti, a crack group of experts. But after we hung up, I realized that if you step back a bit it might strike the average person, who’s not in the food industry, as pretty-darned funny that someone would want to listen to technical people talk non-stop about olive oil for a whole day. Perhaps I should think about getting a life??? Actually, the symposium was 2 days, but I just went to the second day, so I guess I have half a life. ;-)

Anyway, this was all thanks to our good friend Diane DeFillipi of Let’s Go Cook Italian and her olive-oil maestro Paolo Pasquali of Villa Campestri in Tuscany.

I’ve been to enough seminars on wine that the agenda felt like home, except it was about olives and oil instead of grapes and wine. Folks of various expertise discussing irrigation, varieties, marketing, health benefits… But since olive oil and wine have differences in addition to similarities, most of this was new information and it seems that the biggest consumer issues were those of finding ways to regulate quality and concerns about lack of consumer understanding, even among professional consumers such as chefs.

Perceived areas of confusion:

1. Since most of the oils we use have little or no flavor, we’ve expected olive oil to be bland too. If it’s any good, it isn’t. It tends to be grassy and peppery in flavor and quite often bitter. Darrell Corti referred to “3-cough” oil as being a desirable trait (when you taste a little of the oil by itself, the pungency makes you cough). And when it came time for tasting, by golly, I coughed! He pointed out, of course, that when you put it on your salad or pasta it’s diluted by other flavors and contributes flavor of its own to the mix rather than making you cough. That’s a relief!

2. All the different names are very confusing (pure, virgin, extra virgin, light). True. Cut to the chase: always buy extra virgin and hope that’s what it really is. Inexpensive extra-virgin olive oil is suspect, because good olive oil is expensive to produce. Unscrupulous producers may cut the olive oil with cheaper oils (misrepresentation was a topic that also came up that day). By the way, “light” olive oil isn’t lower in calories. It’s just been processed to be bland.

3. There are different styles of extra-virgin olive oil ranging from light fruity intensity to intensely fruity and pungent. Typically, the greener the color, the greater the intensity. Much like wine, mild oil is best with subtle foods like butter lettuce and the pungent oil is a great flavor addition to finish your pasta dish or drizzled over flavorful, ripe tomatoes (Mmmmm… Caprese salad – bring it!)

4. We don’t realize it doesn’t keep forever. We should use it up within about a month’s time or move it to a smaller container to eliminate the head space to keep it longer. Just like wine, air is the enemy once the bottle is open.

5. We don’t know how to store it. Bill Briwa of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Greystone campus in Napa Valley told an amusing story about his days as a student at the CIA in Hyde Park, and how little was and is, even now, not understood by professional chefs. The instructor/chefs kept large cans of olive oil sitting by the hot stove for months on end. Must have been pretty yucky stuff, but they didn’t know any better. Just like wine, the olive oil is sensitive to heat and light, so we should keep it in our wine storage area or at least a cool closet or cupboard.

A few hours were dedicated to why olive oil – really extra-virgin olive oil – is so good for us. This was a very technical discussion -lots of charts, graphs and molecules – directly following lunch. But my chemistry-challenged, siesta-inclined pea brain managed to absorb a little something. The anti-oxidant phenols in extra-virgin olive oil may be “heart smart” and also may inhibit the initiation and progress of cancer. Sound familiar?

Claudio Peri, of the University of Milan, has spear-headed the founding of an organization called TREE (3 E’s: Ethics, Excellence and Effectiveness) to guarantee the quality of the olive oil to the consumer, sort of like an international appellation controlee system for olive oil. Members will have to adhere to certain standards. This organization is so new that I can’t locate their website, and it’s much too soon to know how beneficial this will be, but it’s always great to have folks trying to raise standards and help us to know what we’re buying.

We capped off our day with a beautiful, multi-course dinner and each course, even the dessert, was made with extra-virgin olive oil. Yummmm… Diane and I have both been to plenty of wine-centric, “winemaker dinners”, in our time, that detail the virtues of the wine served with each course. Of course, there’s never any mention of the olive oil used in preparing the various courses. Well, we were bemused to find that the shoe was on the other foot here. This was an “Extra Virgin Olive Oil Menu” and the origin, brand and style of each olive oil featured was placed prominently on our menus. But, the menu made no mention of the delicious wines served with each course. Nada. Ask the server to show you the label or remain ignorant. It was a great reminder that there’s a context for everything and in this case, for once, wine wasn’t the center of the universe. Can that be possible???? ;-)

So, I very gratefully feel a smidgen more knowledgeable about the world of olive oil than I did before and, of course, when you get down to basics it’s like great cuisine and wine. The quality is as good as the ingredients that make it, provided you don’t make a mess of it during production. Salute!

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