Press Releases 2003
Exploring the world of extra-virgin olive oil
Greenwich, February 12th, 2003
By Valerie Foster
sipped. Then slurped. We took hard, fast breaths, to
force the precious liquid to the back of our tongues.
Those were the taste buds we wanted to arouse. We discovered
how to distinguish nuances in flavor: taste sensations,
floral and earth notes.
A wine tasting? Too mundane. We were
sniffing, sampling, studying extra-virgin olive oils
manufactured by Monini, a family that has been making
its olive oil in Italy's Umbria region for three generations.
Although the dozen people attending the tasting would
have preferred enjoying the experience in an olive grove
in Umbria, Sally Maraventano's Wilton cooking school,
Cucina Casalinga, was the next best place to be on a
recent snowy night.
Our guide for the night was Marco Petrini,
president of Monini North America. His family (pasta
manufacturers) and the Moninis have been friends forever.
He's now living in Fairfield County to make extra-virgin
olive oil converts out of as many Americans as he can,
transforming us from a corn oil culture to one that
chooses his favorite product.
"People know that extra-virgin
olive oil is a flavorful and healthy product, a product
that is not treated with chemicals, and that using it
makes a difference in the taste of food," he says.
What is obvious at this tasting is
that when it comes to olive oil, people are downright
confused. "Even companies making olive oil didn't
explain the difference," Petrini says. Some talk
* Olives are fruits that need to be
handled with care.
* They are picked from trees, cleaned,
washed and crushed with the pit. Most of the oil comes
from the pit.
* Once crushed -- and today's machines
are so powerful there is only one crushing, so forget
about "first cold pressing" -- the oil is
separated from the solids. Only oil below 1 percent
acidity can be labeled extra-virgin.
* Oil with an acidity greater than
1 percent is mixed with dry pomace olive oil. The result
-- 85 percent pomace oil and 15 percent high acidic
olive oil is called pure olive oil.
* Extra-light olive oil only
exists in the United States and does not signify reduced
calories. Read the label. It only means a lighter taste
or color. "We would never use extra-light,"
Petrini laughs. "It's like drinking water.
That's not to say that there isn't a place for a lighter
tasting olive oil. Choose the product that best suits
Like everything else, developing a
taste for extra-virgin olive oil is a process. A decade
ago, light and pure olive oils made up 75 percent of
the U.S. olive oil market. That figure has plummeted
to 35 percent, while extra-virgin has jumped to a 65
percent market share.
Obviously, our palates are gaining
maturity, but we have a long way to go, evidenced at
the tasting. Monini makes five extra-virgin
olive oils, from a very mild to an extremely
aggressive and strong variety. Even in Italy, extra-virgin
olive oil preferences vary greatly. In northern Italy,
lighter tasting oils are the norm, while Sicilians say
this oil will add nothing to a dish. They like dense,
"It's good to try different things,"
Petrini says. So we did -- three Monini oils. We also
got to sniff -- not sample -- a rancid olive oil, with
a mildly musty odor that smelled of old age. (Actually,
it smelled like the olive oil sitting next to my cooktop,
which I went home and threw away.)
While professional olive oil tasters
use tin tasting cups with lids, our no-lidded cups were
plastic, which meant we had to improvise. After a minute
bit of oil was poured into the cup, we placed it in
the palm of one hand, and covered the top with our other
palm, gently swirling it around. We were warming the
oil, keeping it closed so the aromas stayed within the
cup, making the fragrance more volatile, ready to explode
into our noses.
First up was Amabile from Umbria.
We uncovered the oil and breathed deeply. "Try
to capture the different aromas that come out,"
Petrini says. "Olive oil is very absorbent; it
might pick up something that is grown in the field next
to it. Artichoke. Tomato. People come out with the strangest
We novices called out fruity. Not a
daredevil among us. "Yes. It's fruity, but not
too fruity," Petrini says. "It's not overwhelming.
Not too strong. It has a beautiful essence."
Next, we taste. Just a few drops are
placed between our lower lip and tightly shut teeth.
Now we inhale, short vigorous breaths to force the oil
to the back of our tongue.
"My gracious," I'm thinking.
"Are you starting to taste the
bitterness? The sweetness of the fruit?" Petrini
wonders out loud.
And I've been blaming the radicchio
all these years.
It seems bitterness is considered the
most important attribute an olive oil can possess. "Bitterness
doesn't have to be overwhelming. You have to be able
to speak and eat afterward. It's a sign of good olives
that have been handled properly," Petrini says.
This oil is perfect paired with soups
and legumes, game, and grilled meats and fish. Not a
good choice for salads.
We cleanse our palates with apple slices.
Next up: GranFruttato.
More fruity than the Amabile, and many
tasted its slight almond finish. "This oil will
mark a dish. It will make vegetables stand out,"
Petrini says. Its uses are many: on bruschetta, salads,
raw and cooked vegetables, stews -- anywhere a rich
olive taste is called for.
More apples, and finally, Monello.
Very strong nose -- grass is called out. We are quick
studies. Monello is made from the first olives harvested
each season, so it's available only during the first
few months of the year, making it the perfect partner
for winter foods -- soups and risottos.
And finally, some last-minute instructions
* Do not spend a fortune on a bottle
of extra-virgin olive oil. You're buying fancy packaging
* Oxygen and light are olive oil's
enemies. Store your oil in a dark place; for longer
storage, in the refrigerator. And keep the bottle tightly
* And one more thing: I had once been
told to only buy green olive oil, because the taste
is superior to a golden-hued oil. Rubbish!
"Don't be influenced by the color,"
Petrini instructs. "Color has nothing to do with
And finally, the reward for tasting
the oils, a feast prepared by cooking teacher Maraventano,
who made many of her favorite recipes, substituting
olive oil for the fat. Most of the recipes came from
her cookbook, "Festa del Giardino."
What a night!