Choosing Olive Oil
On our recent holiday in Italy, my husband and I spent two weeks living la dolce vita by pretending we were Italian in an apartment we rented in downtown Florence. By downtown I mean our little place was in the center of this precious city, about halfway between the Duomo and the SMN train station.
We were also not far from the mercato centrale -- the central market -- Florence's main indoor food market. This two-story building, located behind San Lorenzo, is filled with fruit and vegetable merchants, butchers -- each a specialist in either poultry, meat, or tripe and other organ meats -- fishmongers, fresh pasta makers, bakers, wine merchants, spice shops, and for me the most tempting of all, the large deli-like shops called alimentaris.
My favorite is Baroni, an alimentari owned by two generations of the Baroni family and now in the generous and highly expert hands of Alessandro and Paola Baroni. It fills a handsome and pristine shop, its chilled glass cabinets filled with local Pecorinos and specialties like silken goose prosciutto and opalescent smoked swordfish, best served with an equally white horseradish cream. Behind are beautiful wood shelves stacked with pork prosciuttos -- (salty) Tuscan, (nutty) Parma, and (sweet) San Daniele, above them a display of colorful cans of belly tuna from Sicily. There's also mostarda, a mustard-tinged and peppery fruit jam that is a favorite of mine, jars of Sicilian marmalades, and a tightly edited selection of balsamic and red wine vinegars and olive oils.
We had headed to the mercato to stock our Italian kitchen for the coming two weeks of cooking. We planned to eat some meals out, including a few day trips we had planned into the countryside. But with the ingredients found at the Florence market, it was irresistible to cook almost every day.
I reviewed my shopping list with Paola Baroni, and when I got to olive oil she asked what I wanted. My shrugged non-response was less a problem of my fractured Italian than not knowing what to buy. Paola immediately held an impromptu olive oil tasting.
I thought I knew something about buying olive oil. In a few minutes with Paola I learned so much more. I learned how to taste it.
Olive Oil Basics
Before we start on tasting olive oil, let's just recap a few basics:
- Extra virgin and virgin olive oil are made by crushing olives between stone rollers.
- Extra virgin, usually the first pressing, has less than 1% acid.
- Virgin olive oil, usually the second pressing, has 1 to 3% acid.
- Lesser grades of oil, including plain "olive oil" may have been extracted with the addition of chemicals.
- The lower the acid the lower an oil's smoking point, i.e., the temperature at which it begins to disintegrate. This means extra virgin olive oil is not a good choice for deep fat frying.
- Most of the labeling of olive oil -- virgin versus not, filtered or not, the source of the oil and whether it's blended -- is not regulated.
- Filtered oil has been passed through cotton to remove any tiny particles of oil, which if left unfiltered, may cloud an oil but generally will simply sink to the bottom of the bottle. Filtering affects appearance, and not flavor.
- Olive oil comes primarily from Spain, Italy, France, Greece, parts of North Africa like Tunisia, and California. Oils from more than one of these countries are often blended and then sold as from the country in which it is bottled.
- Unless a bottle is labeled "cultivated, pressed and packaged in [country]" you should assume that it's a blend, even if the bottle says "made in [country]."
- Age is olive oil's enemy. So is light. So buy bottles in sizes that guarantee you'll use it up within a few months and store your olive oil at room temperature, out of the light.
- Better olive oils have a "use by" date on the label.
- DOP on an olive oil label stands for Denominazione d'Origine Protetta. This means "Protected Designation of Origin" and is an Italian regulation that a food export has been certified for authenticity and quality. (A good sign also when buying San Marzano tomatoes.)
- AOC on a label stands for Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, or "Controlled Designation of Origin" and is the French equivalent of DOP.
- The color of an olive oil -- from pale gold to vibrant green -- is due to the climate in which the olives were grown and how mature the olives when they were picked.
An Olive Oil Tasting
If you've ever stood before a shelf of olive oils and saw prices ranging from $7 to $42 a bottle as I recently did, it's hard not to wonder how to choose. With such a price disparity, is it a commodity or is it a precious ingredient? Most people I know use olive oil as the most frequently used fat in cooking because it's healthy, making olive oil a pantry staple. But it can also add wonderful flavor to our foods so the olive oil we use can make a big difference, which brings me back to Florence.
As I stood before Barone's olive oil selection, Paola asked me how I'd be cooking in the coming days. I anticipated roasting some poultry, making veal piccata, a baby lamb for Easter, plus pastas and salads -- uncomplicated meals I could make in an unfamiliar kitchen. I also said I'd want to use the oil with vegetables and as a drizzle on bread with antipasti. She put three bottles in front of me, opened each and handed me a small spoon that looked like one used to eat gelati. She poured a small amount of bright green oil into the spoon and handed it to me.
This was hard-core: no bread to dip. Just sip, taste and swallow.
"What can you taste?" she asked, adding, "This is a nice soft one." I was still getting used to having a mouthful of olive oil and the physicality of swallowing it while also tasting it. But she was patient and in a moment, sure enough, I got a flavor of herbs as well as a kind of grassy tannic that hit the back of my throat. Similar to that roof-of-the-mouth experience you can have with a seriously substantial red wine.
She opened the second bottle. This one, called Laudemio, I recognized from New York markets for being in the close to $42 range. Another pour into my spoon. She didn't say anything but instead watched and waited. I must have made a face. "Bitter, right?" And I nodded because it was indeed harsh and unpleasant, nothing about it something I'd want to put into my food. "Some people like it but it's not my favorite." An Italian diplomat.
By the third I was used to the oily mouth and throat experience and was beginning to understand what I should be paying attention to. This last oil was paler in color with a flavor that was very fruity, with more pepper and spice than the first. While I liked it and would love it to finish a hearty minestrone, it had a big personality. Too big.
I said I liked the first the best and she agreed. "It's inexpensive and versatile but still has flavor." I had chosen an extra virgin by Planeta, a DOP from Val di Mazara in Sicily. A .50 liter bottle cost about 8 Euros and the back of its dark green bottle had a use-by date of July 2012. While in Florence I used up half the bottle and managed to bring the remainder home, its top sealed with duct tape and the bottle stashed in my checked luggage.
The Planeta olive oil is exquisite and while it can be bought in the U.S. at some online grocers, here it's sold for twice the price I paid in Florence.
From Tasting In Italy to Buying In New York
Aside from a half-used bottle of Sicilian olive oil, what else did I bring home from this experience? What did I learn from Paola and from that tasting that I can use when I'm back buying olive oil at Fairway or Zabar's or Whole Foods?
- Olive oil comes directly from olives after they've been picked from a tree. And the tree grows in soil, light, air and water. So the "terroir" of the olive tree determines the flavor of the olive oil. That's why all this matters.
- Read the labels. A bottle of olive oil should tell you where the oil is from. If it doesn't, assume it's a blend.
- A blend isn't bad and could be the perfect choice for oil you'll use when the flavor doesn't matter as much. But there are times it will, so know what you're buying.
- Try to buy bottles that have a "use by" date because flavor deteriorates with age.
- If you're going to spend serious money for olive oil, try to taste it first. If you can't, buy the smallest bottle and first pour a little into a glass and as you would with wine, smell it for a mild aroma. Then taste it to determine if this is an oil you'd want to buy again.
- What are you tasting for? Many of the same characteristics of a good wine: spicy, flowery, fruity, grassy, peppery, acidic, citrus, or mint.
- Think about how you will use the oil. If you will taste it while still raw -- on bread, drizzled into vegetable soup or on a Caprese salad, to gloss a grilled steak, in bagna cauda -- choose an unblended oil with a taste you enjoy and will enhance your food. If the oil is primarily to be used in cooking and thus the flavor matters less-- as for sautéing a piece of salmon or making salad dressing, you can choose an oil that costs less, e.g., a blend.
- Many cooks will buy an inexpensive bottle of a blended oil, such as a store's house brand, for everyday cooking. And then have a small bottle of artisanal, more expensive oil for finishing. It depends on how you cook.
- Some better food and culinary stores have regular olive oil tastings. These include Sur la Table, Williams-Sonoma, Fairway, Dean & Deluca, Blue Apron Foods, and others. Even if you don't want to buy your olive oil at a particular store, do some tastings because it will help educate your palate.
Back to the question of why one bottle of olive oil costs $7 and another $42. Mostly the difference has to do with lower priced oils being blends and higher priced ones being artisanal oils grown, produced and shipped by a small producer that carefully cultivates, harvests, and presses its own olives and then packages and carefully ships the oil. But some of the difference is just a triumph of marketing. Another reason we need to taste.
It's no different than buying wine or chocolate. Different ones for different circumstances, appetites, and budgets. And only you can choose.
And if you or someone you know is going to Florence, be sure to go to the mercato centrale and pay a visit to Baroni. Buy some sweet San Daniele ham, a chunk of their fabulous no-salt traditional Florentine bread, and a bottle of Sicilian olive oil. And tell the wonderful Paola that Kate in New York sends her fondest respect.