If it’s extra virgin, it must be olive oil
Story and photos by Wanda Hennig
An old friend of mine (in his 90s at last count) was unceasingly bemused and amused at the “extra virgin” label on the olive oil I’d tell him to buy.
“I mean, a virgin is a virgin,” he’d say. “What in god’s name is an ‘extra’ virgin?”
I wish he were still around so I could give him a copy of San Francisco pastry chef turned author Fran Gage’s latest book, The New American Olive Oil — Profiles of Artisan Producers and 75 Recipes, (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2009). I’d refer him to page 24 and the Madrid, Spain–headquartered International Olive Council’s classifications. (Check out their website, especially the Flash intro that I almost skipped, which is quite lovely.)
Needless to say, beyond listing the technical details of the three grades “fit for human consumption” (extra-virgin, virgin and ordinary olive oil), Gage’s book tells us what I told my friend many times, much as he wanted to hear something more racy. Extra-virgin is the highest grade, the purest, the best — and what Gage uses in the book’s 75 recipes, including one for an unbelievably delectable and decadent “almost flourless chocolate cake.”
Yes, olive oil chocolate cake.
And olive oil chocolate truffles.
Also olive oil mashed potatoes.
And olive oil fries.
And why not?
Gage had the cake and the fries (and would the fries be French without olive oil aioli?) on the menu at a recent book launch a few of us were lucky to get to attend. Not your regular book launch, mind.
First there was the virgin olive oil blind tasting because, as Americans are learning, olive oil has many subtleties.
Our olive oil came in palm-size round cobalt-colored glasses. Contrary to popular belief, color, Gage explained, is not a good indicator of an olive oil’s quality, but people are influenced by it.
We had score sheets to note what our noses told us when, same as with wine tasting, we stuck them into the glass and sniffed; and to note what our taste buds told us when we sucked in air with the oil and let it infuse our mouths. Gage has a comprehensive taste-test guide in her book for those who want to taste, blind or otherwise, at home.
At the launch, to talk about olive oil along with Fran Gage, was Paddy Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, an educational Berkeley–based nonprofit. And Olive Oil Council board member Roberta Klugman, who besides having the right palate, organize the event.
The council, if you’re wondering, promotes the virtues of extra-virgin olive oil, supports olive farmers and oversees the California Olive Oil Council Seal program that evaluates oils for extra-virgin certification. They also have a fun Web site, worth checking out, with lot of olive oil facts and ideas.
Ten olive oil tips from the book:
- Imported olive oils labeled extra-virgin might not be, so choose with care.
- “First cold press” is, for the most part, a meaningless and outdated term.
- Look for dark glass bottles and store your olive oil a cool place for best shelf life.
- Look for the harvest or use-by date. The more recent the harvest, the better the oil.
- Price matters. Extra-virgin, especially hand-harvested, is expensive to produce.
- Use only extra-virgin olive oil in your kitchen and know there are three styles — delicate, medium and robust.
- Robust oils are the ones that make you cough when you taste them. Like wine, what olive oil you like is a matter of taste.
- The flavor of extra-virgin olive oil is best when it is heated gently or not at all.
- There are a lot of health benefits associated with eating olive oil.
- If you see the California Olive Oil Council Seal, you can rest assured that you’re buying a superior oil.
Sounds like virgin is not always so, and it’s worth looking for that little bit extra.
© Wanda Hennig, 2009