When Did Italy Not Qualify For The World Cup Olive Oils: Extra Virgin Varietals Offer a World of Flavor

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Olive Oils: Extra Virgin Varietals Offer a World of Flavor

If your experience of buying olive oil is in the supermarket – it’s shelves lined with olive oils bearing labels with Italian-sounding names – you might think olive oil is a food Italian, or mostly Italian. If so, you would be very wrong. Olive oil was introduced to America primarily by Italians – hence the proliferation of Italian (or Italian) olive oil brands. But olive oil comes from places as far apart as Spain and Australia – and each location gives a unique flavor and quality to the oil it produces. If you limit yourself to one geographical origin, you are missing a whole palate of olive oil flavors.

Everyone knows that the same grape produces different wines in different locations. The Cabernet Sauvignons from California are different wines from the Bordeaux from France even though they are pressed from the same grape. Every wine has a terroir – that is, factors that influence its taste because of where it comes from, especially the soil and climate where the fruit was grown. Although many people don’t realize it, olive oil also has terroir.

Apart from separating it from the watery juice produced when the olives are crushed, extra virgin olive oil is processed almost nothing else. So, the product you pour on your salads or other dishes or dip your bread in is pretty much straight from the fruit. In fact, unlike many “fresh-pressed” juices you might find in the supermarket, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is not pasteurized or heated, so there is no loss of flavor components due to heating.

Olives for oil are grown in countries around the world, including Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Israel, Tunisia, Jordan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. Although you may find the same varietal – say Manzanilla – grown in Spain, Israel, Australia and California, the olive and its oil will taste different in each location. This is due to differences in the composition of the soil, water and climate.

The olive tree takes all these influences and condenses them into the olive – producing its “terroir”, that is, the factors in its flavor that are influenced by its growing location. (By the way – the next time you have your big plastic bottle of “Italian” olive oil from the supermarket handy, take a close look at the label. Chances are you’ll find the phrase “Contains oils from” and then a list of countries, and none from Italy! What you then have is a mixture of oils where any terroir has been mixed in.)

Fine extra virgin olive oils are seasonings. They add critical flavor nuances to any dish and some oils suit a particular dish better than others – just as some wines are better suited to certain foods. If you enjoy olive oil, you should collect a few bottles of different varietals from different geographical regions. Don’t be afraid to spend more on fine oils that you make for your everyday oil – you’ll use a lot less of it. Gourmet quality extra virgin oils should not be used for high temperature cooking or frying as the heat destroys flavor components. Instead, use a lower priced oil for the actual cooking and finish with a splash of the gourmet oils. A splash of extra virgin olive oil will give your meals a great flavor.

An increasingly common feature in gourmet shops across the country is the olive oil tasting bar. If you happen across one, take a moment to taste the same varietals from different locations and compare different varietals to each other. The differences may surprise you. Any food, even plain white bread, will change your perception of the flavors of olive oil. So, when you taste, try to do it the way professionals do — sip the oil without dipping anything into it. Pour a little into a small cup and warm it gently in your hand. Then smell the oil to test its aroma. Then take a sip. Work the oil around your mouth before you swallow to get the full effect of its body and flavor. Then, after you swallow, wait several seconds – many oils have a pleasant peppery pungency that you will feel in the back of your throat after a short delay. Color does not indicate quality, so try not to let it sway you. And don’t worry if you can’t deconstruct the flavor profile like a pro – the important thing is to find oils that taste good to you!

Copyright © 2006 by John McBride. All rights reserved in all media.

The author grants permission to reprint in all locations as long as the article is not used in spam and the copyright, byline, and information about the author are included intact.

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