OLIVE OIL AGAIN?
How to Choose It & Use It
Forgive me if I bore you, and do skip over this if you’ve already absorbed the information, but a faithful reader has asked for another run-through on how and where to go for good olive oil, how to recognize it in the bottle before you’ve laid down your credit card for what may sometimes appear to be a very high price, and what to do with it once you get it in your home kitchen.
“For those of us who don’t have access to oil from our own Tuscan groves,” she says, meaning me, “how can we find the best extra-virgin?”
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I admit to a feeling of deep privilege every year when I sample the first taste of our own olives from our own fields, pressed for us by Mr. Landi who has been doing that for most of the past decade. And I wish I could give you all a sample bottle of our fresh Teverina oil. Alas, we barely make enough for our own family and the people who help us with the harvest.
But there is plenty of very fine extra-virgin available if you’re willing to spend a small amount of time and a certain amount of money to attain it. First of all, about the price: High-quality extra-virgin olive oil is expensive, like high-quality oysters, fine cheese, and the best wines. Like most good things on the table, in fact. The difference is this: a dozen oysters can be consumed in the course of a meal as can a bottle of Puligny Montrachet to go with them. A cheese, well, you might eke it out over a couple of meals. But a fine extra-virgin? Used judiciously and well cared for (no storage next to the hot stove, please), it will last you a week or two. And it’s worth it for the pleasure it will bring to all manner of foods, from a simple green salad to a fine Tuscan-style T-bone steak.
So how do you go about finding that fine extra-virgin?
Marketing oil in Tozeur, Tunisia
First of all, let me say this: Do not go to the supermarket or the local gourmet products store to buy the most expensive oil on the shelf. Nor should you go to Amazon, perish forbid. Unless you know the owner of the gourmet shop and trust her knowledge and judgment, these are places where very little is understood about olive oil beyond the price point. Amazon, for instance, features everything from run-of-the-mill Pompeian and Colavita to premium Tuscan Laudemio, Tratturello from Molise, and the like. The devil, as usual, is in the details which are often obscured, sometimes unintentionally, either by the seller (who is not necessarily the producer) or by Amazon itself.
The very best oil is grown, produced, and bottled on the same estate, like the Tratturello I mentioned above, or Casas de Hualdo from Spain, just to mention two out of many. That information will declare itself on the label. (You don’t read Spanish or Italian or Greek? It’s time to learn how to decipher the very simple words of the label.)
Almost as good and sometimes even better is oil that is grown, produced, and bottled within the same geographic region—that is, the grove may be in one town, the mill in another, the bottling line perhaps in a third, but all in a fairly contiguous territory; the producer controls for quality all along the way.
Next in line is oil produced by a cooperative of growers within a region who grow olives under established controls and all bring their olives to a single mill to be processed into oil. That’s the case, for instance, with ACK, a cooperative of 900 growers on the island of Crete, producing an oil called Kritsa; or Almazaras de la Subbética in Andalusia who make Rincón de la Subbética, among several high-end oils.
The complicated and confusing realm of labels
On the label, all of these oils, whether from individual estates or cooperatives, or regional productions, may carry a PDO (that’s DOP in Italian and Spanish; AOP in French; POP [ΠΟΠ] in Greek), meaning a European-recognized “protected denomination of origin.” This is a guarantee that certain, specified production standards have been met, although, as with wine, it doesn’t necessarily designate high quality. Especially if the product has not been carefully handled post-production. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)
More important than a PDO (or an Italian IGP) is the harvest date. This is not required on the label, but most top producers nowadays recognize its importance to consumers and proudly display it. Right now, U.S. importers are starting to receive supplies of oil produced in the 2022-23 harvest—this is always an eagerly anticipated date because zealous oil-lovers are keen for the first taste of the harvest. But be aware: The harvest date is not the same thing as the use-by date. Let me explain the difference: the harvest date, obviously, is the date the olives were harvested and immediately pressed into oil. Sometimes that’s an actual date—11/10/23 for instance, sometimes it’s more generic, just “raccolto 22-23.” As for the use-by date, it begins only when the oil is bottled and is then good for two years. So a use-by date of 2024 means the oil was bottled in 2022. But—and this is an important caveat—the oil might well be already 18 or 20 months from harvest at the moment it’s bottled. That’s because once the oil has been made, it’s stored, hopefully under carefully controlled conditions to preserve its character, and is bottled only when it’s ready to be shipped. So, if the oil is, let’s say, already 18 months old when it’s bottled, and you buy that oil 18 months later, you will be buying an oil that is three years old.
Olive oil does not improve with age
That is not good because the most important thing to understand about oil is this: Unlike wine, it does not improve with age. That three-year-old oil will not be bad for you, in the sense that it would make you ill, like a three-year-old piece of fish, but it has completely lost its youthful bloom, its fragrant aroma and complex flavors, as a natural result of aging, and it is no longer worth the high price that oil may have commanded when new.
You can sometimes strike a deal on slightly out-of-date oil. For instance, the website www.oliveoillovers.com currently offers anywhere from 10 to 29% discounts on its array of 2021 oils. This is an honest, straightforward, and admirable practice. I’m betting these are still good oils; they may still be fine for garnishing and will be great oils for cooking.
There are also a number of very good, very well-made extra-virgins that may not have the aromatic intensity of the finest kinds but are still worthy of using in your kitchen. I think of several Greek oils, such as Iliada, which I often buy in 5-liter tins and keep in my pantry for all the cooking tasks that require extra-virgin (and in my kitchen they are many). Another is California Olive Ranch, a very large producer making honest oil, with proper harvest and bottling information—COR is one of the few trustworthy oils to be found in supermarkets, at least in my local supermarket. But remember to check the date before you buy!
There are other California oils, too; the category is growing by leaps and bounds, as avant-gardistes get into the game, with cute names and tony packaging. But I continue to put my money on Seka Hills from the Capay Valley in northern California. This oil has a number of virtues, apart from its consistent high quality: 1) it’s sold at a good price point--$20 for a 500 ml bottle of 2022 harvest arbequina monovarietal on their website (https://shop.sekahills.com/Products/Olive-Oil); 2) it can also be ordered in a three-liter bag-in-box for a convenient and secure way to store the oil; and 3) it is produced by the Yocha Dehe Wintun nation, a Federally recognized tribe that’s striving to preserve its language, land, and culture on 24,000 acres of highly productive farmland. That makes it a winner for me.
OK, so where and how are you going to find any of these high-value extra-virgins? There are several trustworthy websites, backed by people who stand by their products (meaning if you happen to get a bad bottle—and yes, it happens), they will refund or replace. At this point I should mention that a lot of problems with extra-virgin olive oil, about which reams of mostly inaccurate copy has been written, come not from deliberately fraudulent behavior but rather from careless handling. Remember—I cannot say this often enough—the enemies of olive oil are heat and sunlight. I have personally seen bottles of what I know to have started out as premium extra-virgin on display at Whole Foods in the full glare of the shop lights, which, in a short period of time can reduce even the finest extra-virgin to something for canning fish. (And Whole Foods is by no means the least of the offenders.) I have heard horror stories of cases of high-quality extra-virgins left on the Brooklyn docks for days if not weeks in the full heat of August. All of that to say why I recommend buying from these trusted websites
www.markethallfoods.com: with a bricks-and-mortar store in Oakland, Market Hall Foods has long specialized in fine olive oils from all over the world, including, especially, California. They have a close association with Manicaretti, importers of top Italian oils, but they are much broader than Italy in scope.
www.zingermans.com: with a bricks-&-mortar store in Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s has a wide range of oils from France, Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Portugal, and Greece, as well as California, and, occasionally, from farther afield—South Africa, even.
www.Gustiamo.com: Gustiamo sells on-line only, and only Italian extra-virgins (along with many other fine Italian products), carefully selected by Beatrice Ughi and her team, and directly imported, i.e., not through other brokers. They also sell to retail merchants but the bulk of their business is on-line and they are good at it.
www.olio2go.com: The bricks & mortar store is in Fairfax, Virginia, but online sales are their strength. Although they specialize in high-end Italian oils, many directly imported, manager Luanne O’Laughlin told me she has her eye on a Croatian oil to add to the collection—that’s exciting because Croatia is not a newcomer to olive oil, which has been made there since Roman times.
www.oliveoillovers.com: I offer this as a relative newcomer. I know nothing about them except that they have a good list of very interesting oils and, as noted above, they are correct and honest about their pricing and their harvest dates, always a good sign.
You might also go directly to an olive oil producer for information about where and how to buy an oil. One such that I’ve had in mind since visiting their groves on the slopes of Monte Amiata in Southern Tuscany is Olio Piro, with a website at https://olio-piro.com, where you can order the oil--very expensive but very flavorful and, they say, high in antioxidants which makes it very healthful as well.
Two importers to keep in mind, although they do not usually sell directly to the public, are: www.manicaretti.com, which deals only with Italian oils and other fine food products; and www.rogerscollection.us, which brings in oils (and other food products) from Italy, Spain, France, Morocco, Tunisia, and South Africa. Both of these importers deal with retailers, Zingerman’s and Market Hall Foods (see above), among others, but you can get more information from the importers’ own websites.
Now that you have acquired a bottle or two of a really fine or even a working-class extra-virgin, what should you do? Do not keep it next to the stove. That is the most important thing to keep in mind: olive oil, I say it again, does not like to be exposed to heat or light. And if you should go into a shop where the olive oils are displayed in a window for all to see, turn around and walk out: Those oils have been seriously mishandled.
Instead, keep your dark glass bottle or can in a cool, dim, unheated pantry, but not in the refrigerator. Have a small dispenser or cruet next to the stove with oil for frequent use. (Amazon has some good-looking ones, including one made of stoneware ceramic which would be perfect for protecting your oil from light and heat.) Just tap off into the cruet what’s needed for a couple of days and keep the rest tucked away in that dark cupboard.
And use it up. Remember what I said: olive oil does not get better with age. Use it lavishly, not just on salads and raw vegetables. Use it to add lushness to a plain Tuscan bean soup. Use it to sauté or braise greens: try dandelion greens, so welcome at this time of the year; steam them till tender, then drain thoroughly and turn in a skillet with chopped garlic, a little red chili pepper flakes, and a healthy glug or two of oil. Use more utilitarian oils to sauté or roast meats or fish. Deep-fry with those oils: at 360º, it’s perfect for frying all kinds of fritters and dumplings. Bake with extra-virgin—you may be astonished at how moist and tender cakes are when made with olive oil. Here’s a recipe for a small (just 4 servings) citrus-y olive oil cake:
A Small Orange Olive-oil Cake, perfect for breakfast or for tea
Use a small 8- or 6-inch cake pan, preferably one with a removable bottom, to make four generous servings, though you could stretch it to six by serving it with whipped sweetened cream or a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
A little butter to grease the cake pan
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (about 3 ½ ounces)
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
Grated zest of one or two oranges (at least 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon orange juice
½ cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
1 large egg
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup plain whole-milk yogurt
Optional: 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, or use Fiori di Sicilia, a citrus-y flavoring from King Arthur (https://shop.kingarthurbaking.com/items/fiori-di-sicilia)
Turn the oven on to 320º. Generously the cake pan, bottom and sides, then cut a 6-inch round of parchment paper and fit it into the bottom of the pan.
Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and toss with a fork to mix well.
Grate the orange zest into a small bowl and add the half-cup of sugar. Using your fingers, massage the zest into the sugar quite thoroughly so that it’s all orange colored and fragrant. In a mixing bowl, using a hand-held beater, beat the egg on high speed for about 2 minutes, gradually beating in the sugar, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Now, still beating, add the olive oil in a slow but steady stream, until it is thoroughly incorporated. Add half of the dry mixture, still beating, and when it is mixed add in the yogurt. Continue to beat until the yogurt is completely incorporated, then add the remaining dry mixture and beat on slow speed, stopping to scrape down the sides with a spatula, just long enough to mix well.
If you wish, add a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract. Or try Fiori di Sicilia (see above).
Turn the cake batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with the reserved tablespoon of sugar. Transfer to the oven and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, turning the cake halfway through to insure even baking.
The cake is done when it pulls away from the sides of the pan and the center is dry and bounces back at a gentle touch. Set the pan on a cake rack and leave to cool, then remove the pan and transfer the cake, sugar side up, to a serving dish. Serve it immediately or set aside to cool further.
The cake will keep, well covered, at room temperature for several days.
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I made the cake! What a great recipe Chef Nancy! I posted it on my Facebook. This was the first time to make it and am very happy with it.Usually I do a test run and then perfect it. This time it came out really good the first time except for the sugar…i can take more time with that next time! i did bake it 35 minutes to what you see! Oven 330. Great recipe, for a 6 inch pan.
Nancy, thank you for including us in this review! We always appreciate your olive oil insights!