Are you ready to pay as much for a bottle of olive oil as you would for a good bottle of wine?
Think about that the next time you see a fancy bottle with a label claiming extra virgin, cold pressed and going for between $20 and $40.
Although good olive oil comes from many Mediterranean countries, particularly Italy, Southern France, Spain and Greece, the fruit of this tree has become a high priced luxury commodity.
The latest organization to bring their products to Montreal is an Italian association called Mastri Oleari. The masters of oil mark their bottles with an HS for High Standard. Using English on an otherwise Italian label must mean that the Mastri are targeting the North American consumer.
At one tasting session, food writers were given plastic shot glasses of both poor and high quality olive oils. The best ones had a light almost creamy flavour and grassy or herbal aroma reminiscent of a sunlit pasture. None of these were going to see the inside of a hot frying pan.
Oils with such full flavour are primarily tasting oils. They great on salads or splashed across fish or grilled meats just before serving. Some are light enough to use in pastry.
The tasting session also brought out a lot of other information:
The flavour of olive oil flows along three spectrums: soft, bitter, and spicy. The way to sample a good oil is to warm up a little in a small glass cupped in the hand. Inhale the aroma, then slurp a bit with lots of air, just like youd do with a good wine. Then have a piece of bread and munch some green apple or a few grapes. The sharp fruit taste refreshes the mouth for another sip of oil.
There are at least 500 varieties of olives in Italy and maybe 700 kinds around the world. Unlike wines, olive oil almost always a blend and is rarely made exclusively from one kind of olive.
Dont keep olive oil in the refrigerator. The oil will congeal, which is natural, but when it returns to a liquid state it loses some aroma and the quality deteriorates. Also, unlike good wine, olive oils do not improve with age. They should be consumed within a year or two of being processed.
Many producers consider cold pressed olive oil to be a myth. Many expensive oils are made from olives that are ground into a mash at between 28 and 33 degrees Celsius. The bitterness of young, unprocessed olives, is removed naturally when the oil is pressed.
Olive oils virginity is a descriptive term for its acidity. Virgin olive oil should have about 1 percent acidity. Extra Virgin half that. Unfortunately, fraudulent producers use these terms without discrimination. Your best guaranty of good quality is still your nose and mouth. Frankly, if it tastes bad or smells off, get rid of it. On the other hand, if you are in a restaurant that serves good olive oil, ask to see the bottle. It is probably available locally.
Two interesting Italian olive oils are Eirena and Fattoria di Asciano. The first is the colour of light amber with a very simple fresh aroma and a nice buttery taste. The second is unfiltered with a complex herbal scent and a lovely peppery finish that seems to hit the back of the throat half a minute after tasting it.
Another that I like is Alberto Cipolloni although it is pretentiously packed in a wine bottle complete with numbered label, cork and punt (thats the large dent on the bottom of wine bottles). This is a richly flavoured oil with just a bit of a sharp taste.
Good oils are delicious and many now come in impressive bottles. They make for superb gifts. Look for them in Italian food stores and gourmet shops such as Milano, 6884 St-Laurent boulevard (273-8558) and Les Douceurs de Marché in the Atwater Market (939-3902). Les Douceurs often has olive oil tastings on weekends.
On the other hand, I cant quite bring myself to buy olive oil like this regularly. Instead, I have been enjoying less expensive ones available in small Italian grocery stores. These are sold in bulk and poured by the litre. Many customers bring in their own bottles or jugs. Two places that sell oil this way are Tortarella & Fils, 9700 St-Michel boulevard (389-6732) and Cavallaro, 4865 Sherbrooke St. West (484-0804).