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If the extent of your experience buying olive oil is at the supermarket – it’s shelves lined with olive oils bearing labels with Italian-sounding names – you may think olive oil is an Italian, or primarily Italian food. If so, you would be very wrong. Olive oil was introduced to America primarily by Italians – hence the proliferation of Italian (or Italian-sounding) olive oil brands. But olive oil comes from places as far apart as Spain and Australia – and each location gives a unique flavor and quality to the oil it produces. If you’re limiting yourself to one geographic origin, you’re missing a whole palate of olive oil flavors.
Everyone knows that the same grape produces different wines in different locations. The Cabernet Sauvignons of California are different wines than the Bordeaux of France even though they are pressed from the same grape. Every wine has a terroir – that is, factors that influence its taste due to where it comes from, especially the soil and climate where the fruit was grown. Although many people don’t realize it, olive oil also has a terroir.
Other than separating it from the watery juice produced when the olives are crushed, extra virgin olive oil undergoes virtually no other processing. So, the product that you pour on your salads or other dishes or dip your bread in is pretty much straight from the fruit. In fact, unlike many “fresh squeezed” juices you may find at the supermarket, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is not pasteurized or heated, so there is no loss of flavor components due to heating.
Olives for oil are grown in countries around the world, including Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Israel, Tunisia, Jordan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. While you may find the same varietal – say Manzanilla – being grown in Spain, Israel, Australia and California, the olive and its oil will taste different in each location. This is due to differences in soil composition, water and climate. The olive tree takes all of these influences and condenses them into the olive – producing its “terroir”, that is, the factors in its flavor that are influenced by its growing location. (By the way – the next time you have your big plastic bottle of “Italian” olive oil from the supermarket at hand, take a close look at the label. Chances are you’ll find the phrase “Contains oils from” followed by a list of countries, none of which are Italy! What you have then, is a blend of oils where any terroir has been blended out.)
Fine extra virgin olive oils are a seasoning. They add critical flavor nuances to any dish and some oils fit a particular dish better than others – just as some wines are better suited to certain foods. If you enjoy olive oil, you should collect a few bottles of different varietals from different geographic regions. Don’t be afraid of spending more for fine oils that you do for your everyday oil – you’ll use a lot less of it. Gourmet quality extra virgin oils should not be used for high-temperature cooking or frying as the heat destroys flavor components. Instead, use a lower-priced oil for the actual cooking and finish with a splash of the gourmet oils. Just a splash of fine extra-virgin olive oil will give great flavor to your dishes.
A feature that is becoming more common in gourmet stores across the country is the olive oil tasting bar. If you happen across one, take a moment to taste the same varietals from different locations and compare different varietals to each other. The differences may surprise you. Any food, even bland white bread, will change your perception of olive oil flavors. So, when you do a tasting, try doing it the way professionals do – sip the oil without dipping anything into it. Pour a bit in a small cup and warm it gently in your hand. Then smell the oil to experience its aroma. Then take a sip. Work the oil around your mouth before you swallow to get the full impact of its body and flavor. Then, after you swallow, wait several seconds – many oils have a pleasant peppery pungency you’ll feel in the back of your throat after a short delay. Color doesn’t indicate quality, so try not to let it influence you. And don’t worry if you can’t deconstruct the flavor profile like a pro – the important thing is to find oils that taste good to you!
John McBride is founder and president of The Harrington Trace Corporation, an importer of fine foods and beverages. He personally selected the award-winning and acclaimed olive oil varietals sold under the Israeli Gold™ label.