Olive oil has certainly made a splash in American cooking over the past few years. In fact, now that we know how good olive oil can be in our diet -- since it has no cholesterol and is rich in mono-unsaturated fats -- the average American uses about a pint per year. However, an average Italian family of four uses a liter (a bit more than 2 pints) a month!
Late last fall I visited Tuscany while the olive-oil pressing was going on and saw firsthand that this truly fascinating process is a labor of love.
Perhaps you wonder why these oils are so expensive? Well, just one taste and you'll know -- these are no mass-produced oils with no personality. They taste very different from any other you have ever had. Perfumed and peppery with character, these are the oils made according to the strict guidelines of the Chianti Classico consortium, which ensures that only oils meeting their criteria bear the mark of the black rooster.
Four varieties of olives are grown for this sweet-smelling yet robust oil. When the olives are ready, netting is laid out around each tree, then the olives are picked by hand or hand-raked off the trees.
After watching the picking, we visited the olive oil mill where small farmers take their olives to be pressed. Waiting too long before processing will cause the olives to deteriorate, and the oil will acquire acidity.
While typical extra-virgin olive oil has an acidity of 1 percent, these oils must test less than 0.5 percent acidity, so the olives are rushed to the mill. There they are washed, destemmed and ground into a paste before being cold-pressed, producing the luscious green oil.
Bread and oil
The olive scent was making us hungry. Fortunately, we were taken next to the workers' lunchroom. Right there in the lunchroom was this huge fireplace with racks on the hearth where slices of rustic Tuscan bread were being toasted. After the bread was just slightly crispy and scented with a light smoke from the fire, we rubbed the slices with garlic, then drizzled them with just-pressed oil -- opalescent light green in color -- and lightly sprinkled them with salt.
Called fettunta, this traditional snack of olive-oil mill workers is a Tuscan favorite.
This olive oil is best stored in well-sealed glass containers in a cool, dark place -- like the place where precious wine is stored. Olive oil stored in this manner will last up to two years.
But contrary to common thought it is not good to refrigerate olive oil. Refrigeration breaks down the flavor. If you buy a very expensive bottle of oil, live in a super-hot climate and have no cool, dark place to store your oil, then some experts say it's OK to freeze it. Just take out what you need when you use it.
I mostly like to use these super olive oils raw rather than heated because they are very expensive, and I think you get the best value for your money when the true flavor easily comes through )) on the food. Though, if you can afford it, these oils are wonderful for braising vegetables such as fennel or Belgian endive with a little stock.
But the best way to try them is to have an olive oil tasting, and here's how to share the cost and experience with friends.
For a tasting party, gather all interested friends and have each of them bring a different, high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil. As guests arrive, fill small bowls with some of the oil, place each bottle in a paper bag, seal it with a piece of raffia or string and number the bag.
Line up the bagged bottles and place the little bowl with oil in front of each. Set out a full basket of teaspoons and a platter of peeled and cored tart apple wedges such as Granny Smith. Get your barbecue grill going and have little bowls of garlic cloves and kosher or sea salt set out to make fettunta.
Pass out paper and pencils, pour glasses of Chianti, then briefly talk about how the tasting is to be done.
* The first method: Dip a wedge of apple in the oil and lick it off.
* The second method: Pour a small amount of oil in a teaspoon, smell it, then taste it. (If you have a lot of small glasses pour a small amount in a glass, then grasp the glass with both hands, warming the oil so that the aromas are easily sniffed. Bring the glass to your nose and slowly inhale a couple of times, making note of the fragrance, then taste the oil, letting it run over your tongue.)
* The third method: Grill a piece of bread, rub it lightly with a garlic clove, drizzle it with olive oil, then season lightly with salt.
Remind your guests to take notes and write descriptions. Remember, there never are any right answers when having a tasting; it is always a person's personal choice. The results are usually very interesting.
After everyone is done, have them turn in the number of their favorite oil, tally the results, announce the winners and unveil the oils. Then move on to enjoy the rest of the menu. This tasting party menu was inspired by a wonderful dinner I attended in Tuscany at author Giuliano Bugialli's cooking school. My recipes follow as well.