Read Time: 5 Minutes
On The Skin
Rebecca took care of my sister and me when were little while our parents were at work. We called her our nurse because she always wore a nurse’s unifrom. One year she came with us on vacation to the beach. When Rebecca walked into the beach house where my mother was using some olive oil to dress a salad, she asked, “Why are you using my suntan lotion for the salad?” Rebecca was by no means an early adopter of level 50 SPF.
It can’t be argued. Olive oil has been applied in myriad ways since it was first pressed somewhere along the Mediterranean’s eastern coast. Spartan and Greek athletes massaged their body with it before performing sports in the nude. It came to replace animal fat in religious ceremonies — still used for the Christian sacrament of Anointment of the Sick and in Judaism for lighting the Menorah. Ancient Egyptians used it for skincare. If you’re curious enough, you’ll find plenty of contemporary videos on how to make your own olive oil soap.
Despite Rebecca’s ancient inclination, we know EVOO best for its potency in the kitchen.
With compelling depth of flavor and a smoking point between 374-419 F, extra virgin olive oil is a highly versatile fat. It can dress salads, legumes, soups, be slathered on fish and steak and drizzled on bread. It is an essential ingredient of pesto and bagna cauda. Living in Italy for almost two decades, I always slick my pan with it for sauteeing and soffritto, and sometimes add it to butter so the burro won’t burn. I’ve used if for deep-frying too (see smoking point above), even though it felt like a sin using a comparatively more expensive oil. But I loved the way it cooks, tastes and the lack of that unpleasant “fried” odor that clings to everything. When transitioning my son to solid foods, the first pasto advised by our pediatrician in Bologna was semolina cooked in vegetable broth and garnished with parmigiano and two spoonfuls of extra virgin olive oil. Take that, insipid rice cereal!
I’d say on average our household consumes at least ten liters a year. With that much, you’d think we were using it for sun lotion!
Living in a country that has a storied tradition of producing olive oil, you get easily accustomed to using it for everything in the kitchen. I’ve never had to bother with any other type of oil. Even the way I go about buying olive oil is specific to being in Italy. We visit local olive oil producers here, taste their product and then buy it. Not an option for someone who doesn’t live in easy driving distance of an oleificio.
Separating Liquid Gold From Murky Green
Visiting small-scale Italian olive oil producers, whether previously for La Cuisine or now for my own home, a number of them voiced their concern about the bad name Italian olive oil has received over the years due to counterfeit products. It’s hard to blame them with the staggering cases that have come to light, mostly involving large companies and refineries. Tom Mueller’s 2007 New Yorker article “Slippery Business” is probably the most notable account and a fascinating read. It discusses two major cases of fraudulent Italian olive oil production regarding Riolio and Casa Olearia in the 1990s. Mueller was so struck by the cultural significance of olive oil, he went on to write a comprehensive book on the tree’s by-product throughout human history in Extra Virginity. And who doesn’t remember Nicholas Blechman’s cleverly illustrated summary of adulterated olive oil “Extra Virgin Suicides” in the The New York Times?
Other substantial counterfeit EVOO operations have resurfaced in American and international press, like in Bill Whitakers’ 2016 60 Minutes segment on the Agromafia. Or more recently the 150,000 liters of olive oil confiscated by Europol. Efforts have been made within the EU and Italy for clearer labelling, better monitoring and improved regulation. But the impact lingers. Some people who have read bad press about Italian olive oils swear they only buy Spanish, AmericaLove, and so on. Staggering numbers of videos and articles offer tips and insight for buying extra virgin olive oil like Julie Moskin’s recent New York Times article and Claire Saffritz and Bell Cushings’s “How to Buy” guide in Bon Appetit, both of which are full of useful information for the people who need some basic guidelines.
With 1551 varietals, shopping for olive oil in a way is like purchasing wine. If possible, taste and smell what you’re buying. You can experience everything from buttery to peppery, a slight almond flavor or maybe pear notes, an oil that is spicy or one that is herbaceous. It’s fun getting to know what you like.
Price isn’t always an indication of what agrees with your palate. On that point, however, if extra virgin olive oil generally runs for X per liter in its production country, if you see it for sale for anything less you’d be right to be suspicious.
Slather It On
There are two things that Julie Moskin mentioned in her article that I have experienced as a home cook on the other side of the Atlantic. The first is that olive oil does perish, so it’s best to use it within two years of its harvest date (more or less) and not keep it forever in your pantry. In turn, that means being generous with olive oil and cooking with it more often. Even deep frying with it.
When an Italian olive oil producer on one of my recent excursions asked me, “Where does the best olive oil come from?” I stumbled with that feeling you have in school when you think you know the answer but you also know it’s a trick question so your answer is probably wrong. He broke the silence and surprisingly responded, “It’s easy. It comes from the best olives.” An A+ answer.
Juggling nuance between Italian and English, Tatiana lights up her five-burner kitchen top with nostalgia for American food, Bologna-inspired fare and cross-cultural inventions. She and her husband endlessly debate on cooking with or without a recipe. Their son just hopes that dinner will either be plain or have chocolate in it.