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Pour Me a Glass of Green

Olive oil is a fruit juice too.


You uncork the bottle and pour a bit of your favorite into a glass. You bring it to your nose and inhale the bouquet. It's full of fruit, with maybe some grassy overtones. You hold the glass up to the light to better appreciate the color. It's a beautiful golden green. . . . Green?

Yes, green. Olive oil has become the new wine. You don't drink it straight, of course, but that's about where the differences end.

Today, fine extra-virgin olive oils--particularly those of Italy--are being treated much as fine wine is. They are produced on individual estates. They are labeled by specific regions, vintages and even olive varieties. In some cases, makers are crafting oil according to their own stylistic whims rather than adhering to the traditional styles of their regions.

Tasting olive oil is more like tasting wine than most people imagine. Grapes and olives are the fruits of plants. The resulting liquids--wine and oil--are essentially the juices of those fruits.

The purest and most interesting examples of these juices are produced and bottled on estates where the owner's point of view can be tasted in the final product. Perhaps a particular varietal is grown, or maybe several varieties are blended to create a signature style.

A good extra-virgin oil should taste clean and fresh, as should the product of any healthy, sound fruit. It should have beautiful color and a satisfyingly sensual "pour." There should be a fruity taste, sometimes almost like apples.

There should also be nuance. Sometimes there is a strong "green" taste, often compared to that of leaves or grass. The oil may be bitter, pungent or sweet. The telltale pizzico or peppery bite of a fine Tuscan oil gives a pungent flavor prized in central Italy. A good oil will have some or all of these characteristics.

On the other hand, if the oil is sour, winey or vinegary, it's a sign of too much acetic acid (a good thing for vinegar but really bad for oil). Similarly, if the oil is rough or metallic, something is definitely wrong. If the oil tastes greasy, perhaps the olives were too ripe when they were finally pressed.

The most common defects are mustiness, a taste of muddy sediment, fustiness and rancidity. These come from bad storage of the olives before pressing. Perhaps the pickers failed to discard nicked or bruised fruit, or maybe the olives were too wet. When olives are stored at high humidity too long, imperfections in the fruit encourage the growth of yeasts and fungi on the olives.

Rancidity is another major problem, as it is with all oils. Oil becomes rancid when it starts to oxidize after prolonged contact with air.

Sometimes the faults of an oil will leap out at you; other times they are more subtle. You may simply know you don't like a certain oil. If you find that you are trying to overcome a true repugnance to the way an oil tastes, it probably has defects.

Where oil is pressed makes a difference. Most small towns in oil-producing areas have community presses, usually at the local large estate. Small farmers will go to the community press, where their harvests are combined and pressed into "community oil."

If the estate owner is producing his own higher quality of oil, he needs to take care that the press is free of all residue from the community pressing. (Of course, the community oil itself is often very good--and lower in price. Perfect for cooking, in other words.)

Interestingly, some of these estate owners are now blending their oils to fit their own palates, rather than adhering to traditional flavor profiles, much as winemakers are accused of creating wines to fit an "international" style. Olive oil, too, has become such a high-end product that traditional regional differences are becoming obscured.

Weather, soil and the maturity of the fruit when picked will affect the final product. Combine these variables with the hundreds of varieties of trees available to the grower and you can begin to understand the complex nature of the high-end olive oil business.

And then you can add one more variable--vintage. Just as wine can vary from year to year, so can olive oil. More and more high-end producers are adding a vintage date to their bottle labels.

Fortunately, 1999--the most recent pressing--was a very good year for olive oil. Not only was the quality high, but the quantity was also abundant, so there should be a lot of good oil at relatively decent prices.

When you are exploring, remember that there is no single right oil. Just as there is no such thing as one wine that can be served with every dish, there are many styles of olive oil that can be used in different ways.

At my home, I keep four different oils near the stove. I use the lighter, milder oils for cooking non-Italian food, while the gutsier Tuscan and Moroccan oils are for preparing traditional foods of those areas and for adding to sauces, soups and stews during the last few minutes of cooking to bring together the disparate ingredients and pump up the flavor.

Finally, again as with wine, the flavor and color of olive oil will begin to change as the bottle sits and ages. The flavor will mellow from almost-puckery artichoke to smooth almond. Often the color will change too, turning from green to more golden-yellow hues.

Once you get to know oils, it's actually fun to buy a couple bottles of your favorite. Use one as soon as possible after it's pressed to enjoy the raw, strong complexity of the oil. Let the other bottle sit in the pantry or some other cool, dark place to mellow.

Call it your oil cellar.


Kleiman is owner of Angeli Caffe on Melrose Abenue in Los Angeles and host of "Good Food" on KCRW-FM (89.9).

She will lead a tasting of olive oils for the Los Angeles convivium of Slow Food on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Lucques restaurant, 8474 Melrose Ave. Tickets are $15 for members, $20 for non-members. For more information, call (323) 655-6277.

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