Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Olive Oil

I am crazy for good olive oil, and I always bring some back home with me whenever I visit an olive-growing country -- it's probably my number one souvenir, and I've never once had a bottle break or a tin leak in my checked bags.  One day I'd like to participate in an olive harvest, but until that happens my most memorable oil experience has been a tasting at Olio & Convivium in Florence.  Similar to a wine tasting, it is remarkable how even olive oils from the same region (in the case at Olio all the oils were from Tuscany) taste incredibly different.   As olive oil is a culinary item I'm very fond of and I enjoy just about every day (my breakfast most days is a piece of good bread, toasted, with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt), I have made it a point to taste a great number of oils from around the Mediterranean.  I also read a lot about it -- if you love olive oil as much as I do you might enjoy Olive: A Global History (one edition in The Edible Series published by Reaktion Books and written by Fabrizia Lanza, who now runs the wonderful Sicilian cooking school originally begun by her mother, Anna Tasca Lanza) and The Passionate Olive: 101 Things to do With Olive Oil by Carol Firenze (Ballantine, 2005).  

Freelance journalist/author Tom Mueller is also crazy for olive oil, and he first appeared on my radar with an article he wrote for The New Yorker entitled 'Slippery Business' (2007).  I referenced this great piece in several of my books, and I was really glad when, two years ago, he wrote Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Norton, 2012.  One of my favorite food writers and cookbook authors, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, noted of Extra Virginity that it's "a story that all food-lovers need to read and understand."  With the publication of this engrossing and important story, Mueller went "steadily deeper into oil," exploring its cultural, culinary, chemical, and criminal sides.  He traveled all around the Mediterranean, from southern Spain and North Africa to the West Bank and the eastern coast of Crete.  He also went to California, Chile, South Africa, and Australia.  And he met oleophiles like Flavio Zaramella, president of the Corporazione Mastri Oleari in Milan (one of the most respected private olive oil associations), who is devoting the rest of his life to redeem the olive oil business from fraud.  Yes, big time fraud.       

Grazia De Carlo, the matriarch of the De Carlo olive oil family (they've had groves in Puglia since the 1600s), told Mueller about the wine scandal in Italy in 1986 -- hospitals across northwest Italy were admitting dozens of people suffering from symptoms like nausea, lack of coordination, fainting, and blurred vision.  Twenty-six people died, and twenty went blind.  It was eventually discovered that each victim had recently drunk a local white wine that had been cut with methanol, a very toxic substance also known as wood alcohol.  The scandal devastated the Italian wine industry, and hundreds of producers -- most of them honest -- went bankrupt. However, the scandal served to radically improve Italian wine-making, and forced a shift from quantity to quality.  Grazia noted that only after the methanol scare did the government get serious about enforcing quality, and today wine is a major export product for Italy.  She added that sometimes she wishes there could be a methanol scandal in olive oil, "which would obliterate this corrupt industry completely, and rebuild it in a healthy way.  It's been Babylon around here for far too long." 

Since I read Extra Virginity I've been paying closer attention to the oil I buy, and Mueller's Appendix 'Choosing Good Oil"has been very helpful as well as his website, www.truthinoliveoil.com.
There are a number of pointers to remember when buying oil, but I think one of the most important is to read the label and find out if the oil is from a specific mill and/or from a specific country or region.  'Packed in Italy'or 'Bottled in Italy' are phrases that are often meaningless and false -- Italy is one of the world's major importers of olive oil, from Spain, Greece, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, and elsewhere.  Some labels list a number of countries where the olives came from, but these are oils to be avoided.  Similarly, another misleading word I've seen on labels is 'frantoio,' the Italian word for olive mill, which at first might seem promising but then I notice the list of countries that provided olives further down the label, and sometimes Italy isn't even one of them. 

As might be expected, there are very few olive oils available in North American supermarkets that are real -- again, the label is revealing: avoid oils with words like "pure," "light," "olive oil," and "pomace" -- these have undergone chemical treatments that strip away olive flavors and many of the oil's health benefits.   Generally I have one olive oil in my house that I use for cooking and another (more expensive) oil I use for salad dressing and drizzling on things.  I follow Mueller's recommendations to the letter, and my favorite source for more expensive oils is Gustiamo (which is my favorite source for a number of other Italian culinary items as well). 

Cost, too, is an indication of what you're buying -- real olive oil is not and never has been a bargain.  Any of my followers who may have read my Collected Traveler Central Italy book (devoted to Tuscany and Umbria, and published in 2000) may recall an article I included called 'Tuscan Olive Oils' by Faith Willinger.  In my introduction to the piece, I noted that Burton Anderson, in his wonderful book Treasures of the Italian Table (William Morrow, 1994), wrote that making extra-virgin olive oil is so labor intensive that "even the most expensive oils are in a sense under-priced."  I also mentioned an olive oil from Il Picciolo, near Siena, that is produced by an American named Ruth McVey.  According to an article in Saveur No. 8, McVey's harvest doesn't produce more than about 800 liters in a good year, too little to export.  But she was quoted in Saveur as saying, "Olive oil for me isn't about making money.  It's about quality, and whether that still matters anymore," a statement that could have been made by a great number of Tuscans who believe, as I do, that quality does indeed still matter. (And by the way, McVey's oil may be purchased on-site)   

I am now off for two weeks to France, where I'll spend some time in the south, one of the world's great olive growing areas, where many people also believe that quality does still matter.  More posts to follow after the 12th of June....

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