Green Gold

Long Savored Along the Mediterranean, Olive Oil is Adding Zest to America's Diet

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With all of the choices on supermarket shelves, one can get light-headed trying to decide which olive oil to buy. The best way to find out which oil you want at home is to employ the same method used for wine tasting. Buy four to six oils--no more or your tastebuds will be overwhelmed. Pour some of each in separate cups or small bowls. Smell each, then taste them using a teaspoon. (Remember, color is not an indicator of quality.) Try some on bread or bruschetta (toasted country bread rubbed with cut garlic). Assertive oils such as Laudemio Frescobaldi and Frantoio accentuate it, while riper, rounder oils such as the Dal Raccolto mellow the garlic. Then try some oils on fish or chicken or grilled vegetables. Gentle oils, like those of Liguria, are generally more appropriate for fish or vegetables. Freshly boiled or baked potatoes are also good vehicles for tasting oils.

Artisanal oils should be used as condiments, sparingly drizzled on pizza or grilled meats just before serving, or tossed with cooked pasta. Heat will destroy the delicacy of these oils, so they should not be used for cooking. Use supermarket oils for cooking and also for salad dressings where the oil is masked by vinegar and mustard, though some salads can be dressed perfectly with just an artisanal oil. Plain "olive oil" is appropriate, even advised, for deep-frying because it gives foods such as potatoes an unusually crisp crust with a gentle olive flavor. Olive oil french fries? Take that, McDonald's!

Sam Gugino is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator. Artisanal Markets

Many artisanal oils can be found in gourmet food shops across the country. However, quite a few can be obtained only by mail order. Here are some reputable mail-order sources:
Dean & DeLuca New York, New York (800) 999-0306
Corti Brothers Sacramento, California (800) 509-3663
The Pasta Shop Oakland, California (510) 547-4005
Strictly Olive Oil Pacific Grove, California (831) 372-6682
Wally's Los Angeles, California (888) 9WALLYS
Zingerman's Delicatessen Ann Arbor, Michigan (888) 636-8162 Bertolli's Smokin' Chief

When William C. Monroe talks about his work, he takes out a cigar to communicate the complexities and special properties of his trade. The president and chief executive officer of Bertolli North America, a subsidiary of the world's largest olive oil company, Monroe sees a synergy between his product and premium cigars that others might not.

"First, there is the tremendous amount of tradition behind the making of both products, signified by strong family values," says Monroe, the father of three, who was hired by a Bertolli family member when he joined the company in 1982. "Then there is the fact that both products require master blenders, and are 100 percent agricultural. Cigars, wine, olive oil--they are all in a similar category."

With an eye toward tradition, loyalty and heritage, it's no surprise that Monroe's favorite cigars come from two of the industry's most heralded producers--La Aurora and Arturo Fuente. Preferring a mild- to medium-bodied smoke, Monroe counts León Jimenes, Aurora Belicoso and the gentler Fuente lines as his go-to cigars.

Artistry and quality are important to Monroe, who recognizes and applauds craftsmanship. "When you make the world's number one olive oil, you begin to look for the number one cigars, and the best way to enjoy them," he says, mindful that the human hand plays an integral role in harvesting and nurturing both products.

Monroe, 54, was a former cigarette smoker who gave up the habit three years ago because the aftertaste made him feel "unhealthy." Shortly thereafter, Monroe attended a cigar dinner and became a convert almost instantly, appreciating the taste of the cigars and the feeling one gets from smoking in a cigar-friendly environment. "You can meet a lot of interesting people who understand and enjoy cigars," he says. "People aggressive in their careers, who appreciate taste. In a relaxed environment, a cigar and its aroma complete the setting."

For Monroe, an avid golfer, the preferred setting for a smoke is usually the golf course; or, when he has the time, at cigar bars such as JR Tobacco, the combination cigar shop/cigar bar in Whippany, New Jersey, just a chip shot away from both Monroe's home and office. Sometimes the setting is in Italy, where he travels at least twice a month for Bertolli board meetings and to visit olive farms. Monroe's favorite cigar size is a robusto, because it's manageable in the hand and allows him to savor the smoke in a short period, at the "right moment."

Monroe recalls a recent "right moment" that characterizes his growing appreciation for cigars. On a warm spring night in Tuscany, near Lucca, Italy, the birthplace of Bertolli, one of those magical cigar moments close to every aficionado's heart presented itself without warning. Outside a fifteenth century villa, with a full moon glowing in the sky and a low mist rising over rows of olive trees, Monroe lit up a León Jimenes No. 1 and watched his smoke merge into the haze. "The moment was begging for a cigar," recalls Monroe. "And it wouldn't have been the same without one." --Jason Sheftell

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