Exploring the world of extra-virgin olive oil

Press Releases 2003
Exploring the world of extra-virgin olive oil
Greenwich, February 12th, 2003

By Valerie Foster
Food Editor

We 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 tidbits:

* 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 your palate."

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, heavy-tasting oils.

"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 things."

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. "It's bitter."

"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 from Petrini:

* Do not spend a fortune on a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. You're buying fancy packaging and labeling.

* 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 closed.

* 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 taste."

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!





Monini North America, Inc. - 6 Armstrong Road - Shelton, CT 06484 - USA - Phone 1 (203) 513-2763 - Fax 1 (203) 513-2863