The Italians have been cultivating olives since the Fifth Century. They have refined the making, tasting and using of olive oil into an art, complete with a national organization of olive tasters for the discussion, transmission and development of the theoretical and practical principles of olive oil making. Olive oil tasters, assaggiatori, are highly skilled olive oil tasters with expert taste buds, trained to ensure that every batch meets Italy’s high standards.
Why all this for oil? Because it’s not just oil. It’s a substance around which legends are based. It was thought to be medicinal and magical. Homer called it “liquid gold.” And it’s the starting point for much of Italian cooking, used for everything from dipping bread to making sauces. It’s even good as an ice cream flavor. A good olive oil and enhance the enjoyment of a meal, so choosing wisely is important.
The best and most flavorful type of olive oil is Extra Virgin, the finest grade, made from the first pressing. It must be cold-pressed, spremitura a freddo, using no artificial heat or chemicals, and the acidity cannot exceed one percent. Virgin olive oil is less than 2% acidity made from slightly riper olives than EVOO, and pure olive oil, which is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined oil, usually extracted from the pulp, skin or pits of the olive.
Olive oil tasting is as fine an art as wine tasting, and just as intricate. To do so, pour about one tablespoon in a small glass, then cover the glass with one hand, shaking it gently until the oil adheres to the glass and finally warming the glass in your hands until it gets close to body temperature. Smell the oil as you would a wine, sniffing deeply three times and lifting your nose from the oil between each sniff. Then take a sip without swallowing. Instead, roll the oil around in your mouth briefly before spitting it out, allowing it to touch all areas of the mouth. In between oils, drink water and eat bread to cleanse the palate for the next type.
When cooking with olive oil, never use an oil that does not taste good to you. Even as one of many ingredients, it will leave an aftertaste. Expensive extra-virgin expensive oils are best saved for simple dishes, where their flavor can be savored. Use them on salads or drizzle over bread or on cooked meat or vegetables. For sautéing or frying, pure olive oil is fine, since the taste won’t stand out as much.
To extend shelf life, oil should be kept in small bottles and stored in a dark, cool place, in a container with a tight cap to keep air from getting to it. The best olive oils are of course purchased in Italy, where the quality is always better and the price much lower. But if you can’t travel, many websites import extra virgin oil. Try Olio2go for many varietals, all screened and tasted by experts or the Italian Olive Oil Club, that will send oil from a different region each month, along with suggested recipes. Another nice treat or gift is to adopt an olive tree for yourself or a loved one. Through Nudo Italia you can adopt a tree in the Marche region, after which you’ll receive an adoption certificate and booklet for your tree, followed by a spring shipment of extra virgin oil and a fall package of flavored oils. Then you’ll experience the true value of liquid gold.
For ongoing recipes and more info about using olive oil visit The Basic Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Liberati TM