Long Savored Along the Mediterranean, Olive Oil is Adding Zest to America's Diet
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99
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The taste of some supermarket oils can be surprising. In its October 1996 issue, Cooks Illustrated described a blind tasting it conducted in which Filippo Berio Extra Virgin finished fourth out of 12, ahead of three artisanal oils from Italy, one of which hailed from Tuscany.
For artisanal oils--those made by small producers with minimal mechanization--Italy, specifically Tuscany, is the standard. "Tuscany is always a force to be reckoned with. It's been around so long. And people crave that peppery, herbaceous taste," says Betty Pustarfi, who owns Strictly Olive Oil, a California company that sells olive oil and conducts tastings and seminars. But Pustarfi has been seeing better oils coming from southern Italy, especially Apulia, the largest oil-producing region in Italy, as well as from Calabria and Sicily. "The Apulian oil has that coastal tang that somewhat duplicates the Tuscan pepperiness. It's more mellow and viscous, so it has a longer finish," she says.
For years, growers in southern Italy, as well many growers from other major oil producing countries, such as Greece (the number three producer) and Spain, sold their oil in bulk to large blenders and packers. "In these poorer regions, the big producers would come with a big bucket of cash and offer to buy the farmer's entire crop. So the growers didn't have to worry about marketing," says Peggy Knickerbocker, author of Olive Oil, From Tree to Table (Chronicle, 1997). But now many of these growers are bottling their own oil because, as Dick Rogers of Rogers International Ltd., an olive oil importer in Maine, notes, "These small growers look at a Dean & DeLuca catalogue and say, 'Wow, they're selling oil like mine for 50 times what I sell it for.'"
Beyond the well-known green and peppery quality of Tuscan oils, it's difficult to generalize about oils from other regions of Italy, not to mention other countries. For example, the Barbera Frantoia from Sicily ($19/liter) seems to be every bit as grassy and throat catching as Tenuta del Numerouno ($19/500ml) and Laudemio Frescobaldi ($25/500ml), two of Tuscany's best. (Laudemio is a group of Tuscan estates that have banded together to monitor the quality of their oils, which are sold individually. Only a few Laudemio oils are available in the United States.) Typically, though, the more southern the oil, the riper and rounder it is. Umbria produces flavorful oils such as the mellow and sweet Dal Raccolto ($24.95/liter), and wine producer Lungarotti's oil. Ligurian oils, such as Grappolini Ca' Ligure ($12.29/500ml), though close to Tuscany, have a milder flavor because the sea moderates the region's climate.
But Italy isn't the sole producer of high-quality olive oils. France, among other countries, creates them as well. The yield, mainly from Provence, is relatively small, and sometimes a grower's entire output will be snapped up by a single restaurant, so we don't see a great deal of it in the States. French oils generally have a mild flavor profile, although the oil from A l'Olivier ($12.29/500ml), one of the more commonly available brands, tends to be grassy and herbal.
Some of those qualities, although in less overpowering form, can be found in Nunez de Prado ($16/500ml), Spain's best known and arguably its most highly regarded oil, from the Baena area of Andalusia. Nunez de Prado uses a blend of 14 olives, one of which, the picual, is the most prominent in Andalusia, the largest olive-growing region in the world. The picual produces a Sauvignon-Blanc-like character that may not suit every taste. An alternative is the less assertive L'Estornell ($19/750) from northern Catalunya, which has a smooth texture, ripe flavor and nutty aroma. Spain is probably the most progressive country in regulating olive oil, with four government-designated appellations--two in Andalusia in the southern part of the country, including Baena, and two in the northeast, near Catalunya.
Elsewhere in Europe, "Greek oils are making a lot of noise," Pustarfi says. "But you have to be careful about their pedigree. There have been a lot of changes in the past few years." Two savory Greek oils are Morea and Greek Gold. Morea ($18/500 ml) has a round, ripe, nutty aroma and rich flavor with the barest kick on the finish. Greek Gold ($17.95/500ml) has a more pronounced olive aroma and flavor.
Pustarfi also says Portugal is a comer on the olive oil scene. "Talk about a bargain! You can use these oils lavishly. And they're good," she said. "I'll take some Portuguese oils over some that try to pass as top of the line."
Also worthwhile are oils from Tunisia, the world's fourth largest producer of olives. Rogers calls Tunisian Moulins Mahjoub, "the best Provençal oil in the world."
Many believe California olive oil is where California wine was in the mid- to late-1960s. "You have to remember that others have been at it for thousands of years," Knickerbocker says. "But everyone in California is trying so hard to make a good product. I've seen great progress just since my book came out [in 1997]."
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