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Ode to Olive Oil

Fairway's Olive Oil Bar

Sample Fairway's olive oils today.

Sheer, absolute and tiresome rubbish, all this misinformation and nonsense I read on innumerable internet sites about olive oil. Truly, I despair of the worldwide stranglehold the internet has us in, such a muddle of cant and blather, and one can only imagine the mess we’re in if all of life’s other subjects are treated so poorly.

Yes, this is a rant.  I’ve been holding off for months, but I can’t hold it back any longer. I’ve spent the last fifteen years, the last six or eight of them intensely immersed literally and figuratively in olive oil in much the same manner as I have been with cheese starting in the mid-’70’s. So I know of which I speak, and I mean that as arrogantly as you may choose to read me. I have forgotten more about olive oil than anybody in the business knows. Anybody. Any chef, any chemist, any importer, any retailer, any academic whose jaunty hobby is food, travel, the Mediterranean and olive oil. I have forgotten more than they will ever know. And the way I can prove it is just you come to any of the Fairway Markets and spend a few hours looking at and tasting my olive oils, and reading their signs and the labels on the bottles and tins. After a few visits, each an investment of hours-long perusals and study, you will be able to proclaim that you yourself are more knowledgeable about olive oil than just about anybody drawing breath. Certainly anyone who chose to educate himself via the internet. That being said, the only way you would be able to ascend to my lofty level of command is to travel to each of the groves and mills that are responsible for the oils I import for Fairway. Travel to them during all seasons, not just the autumnal culmination of each grove’s raison d’etre. Walk the rows of olive trees. Palpate the tree bark and leaves, and the soil in which the trees reside and consume; breath the air in which the trees respire; turn your face up into the sun for extended contemplative periods, and talk with the farmers and the mill workers. Or, rather, listen.  Talk, and then listen.  Listen, listen.

There is no “best” olive oil. Olive oil, as with any other sensory thing, is a matter of taste. “A chacun son gout” – to each his own taste, it is said among French people. A Turkish citizen will have strong emotional attachment to the olive oil from his family’s groves, and a New Zealander will feel no less adoration for his. But neither is better than the other.  Nor does the price of the two oils have any bearing on “good, better, best.” A professional such as myself may opine that the Turkish source is an oil of bitter and/or bland organoleptic sensation, and that the New Zealand source has undeniable tomato and citrus tang to it. But one cannot and should not take away from a professional’s articulation of an oil’s properties any cumulative positive or negative value. Again, “a chacun son gout.” The professional will attempt to dazzle the listener or reader with words that take on objectivity, rococo and filigree, smoke and mirrors. The daughter of a grove’s patron will similarly attempt to impress, to elevate her family’s oil to mythic status via hyperbole. But none of it means a thing, neither the clinical authority of the professional nor the poesy of the owner of the very soil of the grove. It is all just one person’s opinion, mine included.

But one thing I do know about olive oil that is unassailable, and cannot be said to be a product of prejudice or emotion: There is a lot of bad olive oil out there. And there is probably some of it in your kitchen right this moment. Unless, of course, you are one of my habitual customers.

There is no country that can be said to produce “the best” olive oil. I have always said the same about cheese. The country in which a grove resides is vastly less cardinal than the specific region of it; or indeed the sub-region. Or the sloping terraced hillside or ridge-like spine, or rock-strewn stretch of a particular neighborhood of that sub-region. And then — and then more important is how the trees were tended, when the olives were harvested, which variety is the olive involved in the soon-to-be-derived oil. More than one variety?  Which? How were they taken from the tree? Were they shaken down and did they bounce on the ground and mix with the soil, and thereby become bruised and soiled? Or were they hand-stripped by men and women on ladders wearing hollow goat’s horns on their fingers, or modern plastic-molded goat’s horn-like claws, and were they ripe or were they under-ripe those olives falling into basket or bucket, or were they gently bouncing on nylon nets carefully arranged and shrouded around each tree? Were they then taken immediately to the local mill where they were culled of all or most of the branches and twigs and leaves that were stripped away with them, and were they weighed and then pressed before the olives began to get stale and ferment and change utterly from the crisp and spotted, jewel-like, living nuggets they were to the mushy, lifeless and soggy lumps they are now? Were there obvious olive-fly boreholes in the olives? More than one? Was there any evidence of a film-like mold upon any of them? Did anyone notice how many leaves fell into the press along with the olives? Those leaves will affect the flavor, you know; leaves are chlorophyll and chlorophyll is not without taste, not to mention color. An oil’s viridity can be directly related to an overabundance of leaves in the press, and still those dunderheads on the internet that profess to know something about olive oil will attest to an oil’s wonderfulness being directly related to how green it is.

All of these things matter. All of these things determine the fragrances of an olive oil, the odors of it, too, if it has been created carefully; the texture of an olive oil, that is, the mouthfeel, the way an oil feels on your tongue and on the roof of your mouth and the back of your throat. The way the intensity of an olive oil attacks your palate, the taste buds on the outside edge of your tongue, and the sensory buds high in your nasal passages that fire as you exhale through your nose across the slurry that has slid down the back of your throat, and the incipient bitterness that often arises on the back of your tongue at the approach of an early-harvest oil, the glucosides of green olives making themselves known, a challenge to all but the most ardent of olive oil-lovers, that bitterness that thrills us like horehound, Campari, licorice, or absinthe. And finally the frequent and cherished peppercorn sensation that some oils offer, fresh-ground black and sometimes green peppercorns, so diametrically opposed to some oils’ sweetness on the finish, a finish like honey, like unsalted butter.

All of these things matter. And none of them can be said to come more or less from any specific oil. Unless, of course, you want to. Unless you believe it. Because then it is there.  And that oil is the one that thrills you. After all, isn’t that the point?

Tell us, what’s your favorite Fairway olive oil?

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One Response to “Ode to Olive Oil”

  1. September 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    This is a great reminder that I need to pick up some olive oil today (at Fairway, of course). The highlight of our weekly trips to Fairway is going to sample the olive oils–and when the bread boxes are all steamy because the bread is freshly out of the oven, well, that’s basically food heaven.

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