Last week I got myself invited to an olive oil tasting. Not to brag, but I was an olive oil junkie way before it became haute cuisine. While some people tour wineries in their travels, I swoon over olive orchards. I fantasize about taking my empty gallon tin to a little Greek family mill for a refill from the newest pressing. Some of my favorite haunts used to be olive oil sample bars in the aisles of gourmet food markets. But that won’t happen much anymore, now that I know what I know.
People of the Mediterranean, who buy a month’s supply of fresh-pressed olive oils by the gallon, must get a chuckle over the fact that the typical American buys a month’s supply in wimpy little 7- to 12-ounce bottles. But that is changing, because as a society, we’re thinking healthier, savoring flavors more and learning from aficionados like Marie Heiland.
Case in point: This private tasting at Marie’s chic little olive oil gallery is—how do you say it in the language of the growers?—“Magnifico!” There are artisan olive oils in shiny stainless steel fusti (casks) and custom-labeled bottles. There are ceramic bowls featuring golden pools of oil paired with gourmet balsamic vinegars and zesty spices. There are silver platters of ripe strawberries and other fruits to be drizzled in rich, dark balsamics. A professional chef is presiding over a table laden with crusty breads for dipping, artful appetizers and wondrous dishes made with olive oil. The crowning jewel is a platter of bite-sized cakes labeled “Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake with Cinnamon Pear Balsamic Frosting.”
In attendance are a dozen or so Pi Beta Phi sorority sisters from Old Naples, North Naples, Estero, Marco Island and Fort Myers, or wintering here from around the country. Some of them are dabbing their lips with olive oils and marveling at mega-polyphenols (antioxidants). Others are giggling as they massage the fragrant oils into their elbows and bare toes. Marie, newly minted “olivologist” and owner of Naples Olive Oil Co., is keeping the giggles going with education-laced anecdotes.
“We’re going to taste some oils today that will make you forget those memories of your mother giving you castor oil [for a stomachache]. I’ll tell you what makes a ‘good’ olive oil and explain how labelers can get away with cutting their olive oils with canola and other useless oils without having to say so. I’ll explain why high quality olive oil is extra virgin, but why most extra virgin olive oils are not high quality. And just for fun … what country do you think grows the most, or best olives? (Surprise! It’s not Italy!)”
While the Pi Phis are still exclaiming over the new softness in their lips (“Definitely makes you more kissable,” says Marco resident Pam Shudes), Marie is talking marriage in the tones of a woman in love. The union she speaks of is the marriage of artisan olive oils and balsamic vinegars. And in love, she is. Her story—the short version—is like that of many entrepreneurs. Circumstances, plus an “aha!” moment, equal the birth of a business.
“I was selling real estate. I broke my ankle and couldn’t work. Besides, the market had tanked. I went to Wisconsin to recuperate (applause here from the Wisconsin sisters), and discovered this wonderful olive oil boutique in Green Bay. I was immediately hooked on the concept. Once I got involved, I couldn’t get enough. I studied everything I could, talked to the growers and tasted, tasted, tasted. Which is what I want you to do today. I’ve learned a lot these last couple of years, and what I tell you about the quality of olive oils, you can take to the bank. But only your unique palate can choose its favorite intensities, flavors and pairings.”
Marie shows us the flavored oils first, from the fusti with spigots. On another table are dispensers of dark, almost honey-textured artisan balsamics. I’m already a huge fan of the strawberry balsamic, and the dark chocolate balsamic intrigues me. But today I’m all about olive oil. I start with the most delicate, Natural Butter. Smooth, nice, tastes like butter. No real kick to the taste buds. Might as well just have butter.
The Wild Mushroom & Sage is earthy and delicious. Worth a second taste. “With good infused oils,” Marie tells me, “the flavor essences like mushroom are extracted at the same time as that of the olives. It’s a single spinning [centrifugation] process involving water, oil and mush. No chemicals.”
A real favorite among the ladies is the Tuscan Herb. I prefer the fragrance of Herbes de Provence. There’s Basil (really fresh tasting), Tarragon and Chipotle (superb!). Garlic is my least favorite. I’d rather control my own quantities of garlic.
Marie demonstrates the method used by serious olive oil aficionados. Like wine, one first swirls it around in the glass to unleash the aromas. Tasting is a large percentage olfactory, Marie says. If you can’t smell the fragrance, you’re missing most of the experience.
“After swirling and breathing, you kind of roll your tongue like this, slightly slurping, and let it slide to the back of the tongue,” she says.
I tend to go for the ones with a smooth, grassy first taste on the tongue, followed by a pleasurable, peppery “bite” at the back of my throat. I tell Marie that I haven’t quite found that yet this morning.
Marie nods. “Come with me.” She leads me to a collection of bottles against the back wall of the shop. “I used to love the fused ones best, but as my tastes have evolved, there’s no contest. I have to have these.” She chooses one labeled Pictuline.
“I think you’ll like it.”
I swirl, I breathe, I slurp. The golden, fresh green taste is exciting. A second later, there it is: that wonderful peppery finish. Score!
I used to think I knew a lot about olives and their precious oil—like, for instance, olive oil is a fruit juice, because olives are fruits, not vegetables. Fruit or not, I know that one never, ever wants to pluck an olive right off the tree and pop it into one’s mouth. I learned this the day I saw a beautiful tree by the side of the road loaded with gorgeous green olives. So, I plucked, I popped and I munched down. My mouth didn’t come unscrewed for about 16 hours.
Sometimes, learning by experience is painful. Especially when time, money and health are concerned. So here, compliments of Marie Heiland, are some more olive oil facts worth knowing:
Aged wine is good. Aged vinegar is good. Aged olive oil is very bad.
The quicker olive oil gets from harvest to the press, and from the press to the bottle and into the consumer’s hands, the more flavor and health benefits it has.
“We buy our oils from two hemispheres: from Southern hemisphere countries when it’s pressing time there, and Northern hemisphere countries the other half of the year.”
You can’t smoke it.
The minute you warm olive oil, it loses its best pharmaceutical benefits, like the well-documented “good” cholesterol that helps prevent heart disease. It also loses much of the taste. Marie says: “If it starts to smoke, it’s ruined. Throw it out.”
Forget about first cold pressed.
Blasphemy? No. “Extra virgin” oil is cold pressed. The second and subsequent pressings are heat and chemical-extracted. There’s no “second” cold press. But “first cold press” still seems to impress buyers, so many labelers still use the term.
Enemies No. 1–5.
Olive oil’s biggest enemies, Marie says, are air, heat, light, moisture and time. The process of oxidation (rancidity) starts at the moment of extraction. So buy the freshest you can find, keep it in a cool, dark place and don’t hoard it. The refrigerator is a terrible place to keep olive oil, as cooling causes condensation.
“Pure” is not pure.
A bottle not labeled “Extra Virgin” means that it’s cut with heat-refined olive oil—which destroys the antioxidant power—or another kind of oil, like canola. “You may as well just buy Crisco,” Marie says. “If it’s labeled ‘pure,’ it implies that there are no other types of oil. If it’s labeled ‘light,’ it implies that it’s lower in calories. There’s no such thing as a low-calorie olive oil. Both are deceptions.”
“Product of Italy” isn’t necessarily a product of Italy.
The label identifies the country of bottling, not the location of the orchards. Italy is a huge importer, but Spain, Turkey and Greece are by far the biggest growers of olive oils.
More label secrets.
Even the date printed on the label can be deceiving. Because there are no rules, that date could be the date of labeling. The harvest and pressing could have taken place months—or a year—earlier. The olives could have been grown in one country, pressed in another, and sent to large factories in a third country for bottling. “Super-fresh olive oil means it was pressed within hours of picking, not kept in warehouses.”
Green? Yes and no.
Many people believe that a good olive oil has to be green in color, Marie says, when in fact, it ranges from almost clear to a rich gold. “Color doesn’t indicate quality or affect taste. This is one reason we put our oils in dark bottles. The other reason is that the dark glass protects the delicate oil from destruction by light.”
In olive oil lingo, the word “green” describes not color, but taste. If your bargain oil looks very green, chances are the hue comes from chlorophyll additives.
For even more food bits and bites, check out our Hot Dish blog.