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Food Fetishes

Oil's Well That Ends Well.

There are twelve of us seated around three tables in the basement of the building that houses the Boulder restaurant Trios. In front of each of us is an array of small plastic cups holding olive oil. There's also a basket of bread pieces on each table, as well as a pitcher of water and a bowl of grayish sea-salt crystals. The cups of oil are numbered. Each of us has a sheet of paper on which to record our impressions of the oils. We're asked to rate them for appearance, aroma and taste (mouthfeel, flavor, aftertaste), and according to how much we like them.

Olive oil #0 is a pale, sunny yellow. It's crystal clear, and the taste is mild and even from start to finish -- no pepperiness, no bite. "Buttery," I write. "Smooth."

Food maven James Moore is the co-founder, along with Peggy Markel, of the Boulder Slow Food Convivium. Passionate and knowledgeable, he has devoted his life to teaching people to appreciate food -- to understand its provenance, slow down and really taste. Slow Food, which is an international movement, opposes the ever-encroaching army of fast-food establishments, supports small farmers and the artisan producers of such foods as cheese, wine, bread and olive oil, and attempts to alleviate hunger. Some of the proceeds from the Boulder chapter's events go to charities.

Moore is telling us about olives. There are hundreds of varieties, and the olive tree -- pretty much as we know it -- goes back thousands of years. The tree, which matures slowly and can live for centuries, was cultivated in the Middle East before 3000 B.C. and was hugely important to the Greeks and Romans, who considered destroying an enemy's trees a sacrilege. The olive and its oil have been so intertwined with daily life in Mediterranean cultures that the fruit possesses all kinds of symbolic significance. Athletes in ancient Rome and Greece rubbed their bodies with oil; the upper classes greased their hair into lacquered curls; babies were coated with oil before being baptized. Olive groves still symbolize wisdom and peace, and olive oil a kind of religious grace. Today the olive branch is an almost universal sign for peace. (There's a beautiful chapter on the significance of the olive in Margaret Visser's book Much Depends on Dinner.)

Olive oil #0 owes its light color and mild flavor to the fact that it was pressed from olives that had ripened to blackness on the tree. The greener the olives, the more pungent the oil that's made from them. Some of these oils create a distinct burning in the back of the throat -- a sensation termed pizzica by fans. For example, the next oil, #1, has a deep flavor and exhibits a touch of bitterness. These are not flaws, Moore points out, just differences. In some regions, pepperiness is highly prized; in others, it's avoided.

(Kate Kaufman, co-owner of the Truffle, 2906 East Sixth Avenue, tells me later that in a blind test, she can identify an olive oil's country of origin: "Oils from Italy -- and I'm talking northern Italy -- tend to be buttery, rich, sharp and bitey. French oils are bright, sunny and clean. They leave the olives on the tree longer; they're beautiful, golden oils. I have one Spanish oil I love that's rich and grassy but light enough for a salad dressing that won't overwhelm.")

Moore has us pour a few drops of oil onto our palms, rub our hands together until the friction warms them, then cup them to our faces and inhale. His handout characterizes aroma possibilities as fruity, spicy, vegetative, nutty, earthy, caramelized, woody, floral, chemical, pungent, oxidized or microbiological. Dutifully, I follow his directions, but I lack Moore's discernment. I just smell oil and warmth.

The oils we're tasting all come from small producers. The olives are carefully picked, because snatching handfuls from the tree can bruise them, and heat affects the quality of the oil. Within 48 hours of picking, they are crushed by various manual means. The olives themselves are bitter, but pressing separates the oil from the bitter water, which is drained away. Olive oils are judged by how much oleic acid they contain. The best -- extra virgin -- has less than 1 percent. Virgin olive oil contains 3 percent oleic acid; pure olive oil has 5 percent or more.

Once the first pressing is over, the olives are placed between flat disks and squeezed again to produce more oil; this is the second pressing. Finally, the pulp is taken to a factory so that any oil left can be extracted. Sometimes it's mixed with inferior oils. Moore says that at this stage, various chemicals are added: one that boosts the aroma, then -- since that chemical creates foam -- an anti-foaming agent. He looks at us quizzically. "But it's pure," he says.

Tastings like this one -- and the two conducted by Kaufman annually at the Truffle -- have become popular in the last few years as aficionados try to educate the public about the value of food produced with care by small makers. It's an approach I heartily applaud. But something about this experience isn't sitting quite right with me. Everyone in the room is whispering, as though we were in church -- with the exception of one restless man, who's clearly here at the behest of his wife and isn't too thrilled at making a dinner of oil and a bowl of soup. He samples one of the cups, then announces, "I like the olives in my martini best."

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