I’ve been thinking a lot about olive oil recently. I buy the olive oil for our shop and each time I consider a new oil, I taste it with several other buyers to determine its quality and its potential fit into our selection. In addition to my buying responsibilities, I’ve been reading several recent articles about the scandalous world of big olive oil, evidently full of graft and corruption. Tom Mueller’s 2011 book Extra Virginity shines a light on the history, problems and some of the worst (or at least most suspect) and best producers of olive oil. Considering all of this turmoil surrounding olive oil, I encourage you to experience the revelation of tasting truly exceptional olive oil.
There’s no better time to taste the freshest olive oils on the market than late winter and early spring – but this is true only if you have access to a trusted retailer or a nearby olive mill! We work with olive oil producers in the US, Italy, Spain, France and Greece who harvest their olives October through December depending on latitude, olive varieties and desired ripeness of the olives. At this time of year, we are running out of last year’s bottlings and over the course of the next few months will be bringing in the new harvest from our producers. We work directly with each producer so we can be certain of what we are getting rather than old stock sitting in a distributor’s warehouse at “closeout” pricing.
Olive oil is a perishable product that is best consumed within 18 months of harvest. To be honest, the 18 month guideline is a bit arbitrary because while some oils are delicious even beyond that point, some barely make it to the 12 month mark before they become flat. The important thing to remember is that olive oil degrades over time. Light, heat and oxygen speed the process of degradation and anything you can do to limit those three factors will slow the process (but it never stops).
I grew up with Filippo Berio and Colavita olive oil in our kitchen cupboard and I never thought twice about them. We weren’t a margarine family and butter was frowned upon in the 70s and 80s (despite Julia’s best efforts!) so olive oil was our go-to fat. And that’s all it was… a fat – a vehicle for salad dressings, marinades and sautéing.
The moment I experienced truly exceptional olive oil was on a trip to Tuscany where my parents and I visited the vineyard of Rocca delle Macìe. In addition to a couple bottles of their Sangiovese, I brought home a bottle of their newly pressed olive oil. I started using that oil as I would any other, but I immediately noticed something different in the flavor – something fresh and green and intense. I opted to continue using my other olive oil for the heavy lifting in the kitchen and I tried out my new oil in dishes that highlighted the vibrant flavors of the oil. I made insalata Caprese for some friends and drizzled the Rocca oil over the tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. My guests and I agreed the dish was delicious and that the oil was the central reason.
When I ran out of the oil in that bottle, I was determined to find something approaching that same flavor. I wanted to find that taste again and I knew it would not be found in a big, supermarket brand. I can’t remember what my next bottle was, but I’m sure I found it and I’m guessing I paid a pretty penny for it. After that first bottle, there was no turning back to the world of Filippo Berio or Colavita.
At Formaggio Kitchen, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about olive oil and, as with any extensive experience, I’ve discovered many nuances of aroma, texture and flavor from the smooth and delicate flavors of a Ligurian olive oil made using ripe Taggiasca olives to the full-fisted punch of the new harvest bottles of Puglian Coratina olive oil.
We strive to buy most of our olive oils from small farms – many of whom we have visited to walk their groves and observe their harvest and production practices. For us, our relationships with these producers are the best insurance of quality and we are proud to offer a diverse selection of their oils.
If you’d like to learn more about olive oil, please visit our cheese counter and ask for a taste of some of the bottles of oil we have open. Try something mild and something strong and perhaps you’ll start on your own journey to discovering your new favorite olive oil.