Olive Oil

May 30, 2012 08:00

Ah, olive oil.  Years ago, I took a group of young people over to Italy.  For months afterwards, a group of them and I would sit around doing a Bible study, all the while dipping pieces of bread into a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Heavenly.

Over the years, I've grown to love olive oil, and have tried many different types.

For Mother's Day, I got my mom a copy of Frances Maye's newest book, a cookbook focusing on Tuscan food. Mom has been cooking from it ever since, most recently trying a recipe for Minestrone.

Anyway, I bought myself a copy too, and just yesterday I came across a page devoted to Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  Since most of us use olive oil all the time, I thought I would share Maye's thoughts with you.  OK, I'm a foodie at heart, but I'm hoping you are too :)  If not for the practical info, read on to experience the really wonderful writing style of one of my favorite authors.  Who would have guessed there was so much to learn about olive oil?

The olive tree springs from the taproot of Mediterranean life.  Over time, I've heard of olive oil being used for everything from stretch marks to kidney stones to coughs.  After caring for a grove, it's impossible not to think of olive oil as a holy substance.

The biblical references to anointing the body with oil had to have meant olive oil.  Who first squeezed those bitter drupes and discovered the oil?  She's our missing goddess or saint!  She found the soul of the Mediterranean diet.

How to describe the distinct, polyphonic, greeny, assertive, fresh, piquant, sublime taste of just pressed extra virgin olive oil?  Every year at harvest, I marvel at the punch it delivers to everything I cook.  At this stage, just pressed oil is bursting with health-improving properties, as well as that indescribable taste.  Your cooking skills, quadruple when you cook with the freshest oil available.  Tuscans use great olive oil every day.  When I first arrived in Tuscany, I was surprised to see Don Ferruccio, a local priest, eating an orange he doused in olive oil and salt.  That was a defining moment for me; I realized in one bite what I missed.

Since everything in moderation could be the Tuscan motto, cooks use just enough olive oil.  Salads remain crisp when just glistened with olive oil, and maybe, but not always, a hint of vinegar or lemon juice, then a judicious sprinkling of salt.  On meats, the bottle tips farther: a liberal swathing of the steak or roast produces rich juices.

Finding an excellent oil takes a little work.  Be sure to look at the expiration date and the harvest date.  Naturally, the further away from the expiration date, the better.  Well-stored oil lasts a long time, just slowly losing its pep over time. The oil you're reaching for at the grocery store might have sat for months in the light.  Even a week in a sunny window and it's lost.  A dark bottle protects better than a clear one- but you can't see what you're buying.  If the bottle has the DOP (Denominazione di Orinine Protetta) sticker- bright blue and yellow- that's an Italian government guarantee that the oil is from the area stated on the bottle and that it was bottled there.  The IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) is a slightly less comprehensive guarantee, but if you see it, you know that the oil is from a specific region.

Italy being Italy, however, means that some top oil makers don't bother with the sticker because the process of getting approval is baroque and delays sales while the oil is fresh. More and more growers who take pride in their oil are stating on the label where their olives were grown and where they were bottled. (The Tuscan Cookbook, pg. 31)

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