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Olive: The Duke of Oils

January 06, 1994|STEVEN RAICHLEN

In June of 1993, representatives of the major oil-producing nations convened at the Grand Hotel Quisiano on the island of Capri for a summit of industry titans. But their talk focused not on barrels and crude, but on HDLs and cold-pressing. These particular oil producers belonged not to OPEC, but to IOOC--the International Olive Oil Council.

The product that brought them here has become a primary fuel of the nutritional and culinary revolution of the 1990s: "green gold," better known as olive oil.

When I was growing up, olive oil was difficult to come by, and the choice was limited to one or two producers. Today's consumer is confronted with a staggering selection of olive oils: extra-virgin or virgin, Italian or Greek, cold-pressed or stone-ground, even oils with vintages, like wines.

According to industry consultant Hank Orsi, olive oil imports have soared 3,000% in the last 10 years to their current annual level of 100,000 tons. In an age of general lackluster economic performance, olive oil sales were up a hefty 11.5% in the last 12 months.

So what accounts for olive oil's astonishing success today? Three factors have conspired to turn olive oil into a cook's indispensable companion: lifestyle, health and taste.

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First, lifestyle. In the 1980s, American food-lovers began turning from the elaborate sauces and cooking methods of French cuisine to a simpler style based on grilling. Olive oil, with its rich fruity flavor, proved to be perfect for marinating and basting. It required little more than opening a bottle and pouring.

At the same time, medical researchers turned their attention to the diet of the Mediterranean, a region with a surprisingly low rate of heart disease and a high consumption of olive oil. Not as rich in monounsaturated fats as canola oil, but very rich nonetheless, olive oil contains little saturated fat, an item that health professionals tell us to eat less of. Because it is a useful source of Vitamin E, researchers have studied olive oil for a host of health benefits--from lowering blood pressure to reducing the risk of arterial thrombosis.

But equally important is olive oil's pungent and distinctive flavor. Only a few food oils are used as a flavoring, among them olive oil, nut oils and sesame oil. Olive oil possesses an almost limitless range of flavors: It can be fruity or earthy; intense or mild; grassy, herbaceous, or even peppery.

Many factors determine the taste of a particular oil: the type of olive (more than 60 varieties are used for oil making), the ripeness of the fruit at harvest time, the harvesting method (the best oils are made with hand-picked olives), and the methods of pressing, blending, aging and bottling. Like wine, olive oil reflects the soil, slope and microclimate where the trees are grown. There's no such thing as a "best" oil--no more so than there's a "best" wine.

Nonetheless, there are some technical details you should know before plunking down as much as $30 for a quart of olive oil. First are the three basic grades of olive oil: "Extra-Virgin," "Virgin" and "Olive Oil."

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Extra-Virgin, the highest grade, contains 1% or less acidity. Virgin oil (seldom seen in this country) contains between 1% and 3% acidity and is chiefly used for blending. Plain "olive oil" (once called "pure" oil) starts as inferior oil that, because it's too acidic or poorly flavored, can't be sold in its natural state. The oil is industrially refined to reduce its acidity to 1.5% or less, then flavored with a little extra-virgin or virgin oil.

Other terms to consider when buying olive oil include "stone-ground" or "cold-pressed"--an indication that the olives have been crushed with a traditional millstone, not in a machine. (Mechanical presses heat the oil, which alters the flavor.)

"First press" refers to oil from the first oil extraction. (The crushed pulp can be pressed a second time to make an inferior grade of oil.) "Unfiltered" oil contains fine particles of olive solids, which gather at the bottom of the bottle, like sediment in fine old wine.

To enjoy olive oil at its best, you should buy extra-virgin. It won't be cheap (plan on spending at least $8 to $15 a quart), but thanks to its intense flavor, a little goes a long way. What you'll get is a quality oil made from first-choice olives, pressed immediately after harvest in a press that keeps heat to a minimum. Extra-virgin olive oil is distinguished by a bright (often greenish) color, fragrant aroma and deep, rich, fruity flavor. The flavor varies dramatically from oil to oil, from producer to producer and from country to country, but it will always be intense.

Some of my favorites include Frescobaldi "Laudemio" and Badia a Coltibuono from Italy, James Plagniol and Old Monk from France, L'Estornell Certified Organic from Spain, and Olio Santo from the Napa Valley.

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