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Food Fetishes

Oil's Well That Ends Well.

"You really liked 4?" someone else whispers. "I think I did," responds her friend.

After the first three or four oils, I've lost any ability to differentiate, and I'm tired of writing "yellow," "green," "greenish yellow," "yellowish green" on my sheet. "Isn't this a bit effete?" I mutter to a table-mate. "You could say that about our entire lifestyle, I imagine," she responds accurately.

I grew up in the buttery northern part of Europe (actually, my Czech mother did much of her cooking with chicken shmaltz -- which would make for an interesting tasting!). Olive oil wasn't in general use in the United States, either, until the 1960s, when Americans became interested in ethnic foods in general and the Mediterranean diet in particular (a trend that accelerated as nutritionists began discussing the health benefits of monounsaturated fats).

For dessert, Moore serves sliced strawberries macerated in vanilla-infused olive oil and sprinkled with lime zest.

I like olive oil. I generally cook with the much-derided "pure" version -- because first-rate oil shouldn't be overheated -- and finish dishes or drizzle salads with the good stuff. (Kaufman cooks with grapeseed oil mixed with a little olive oil to even out the smoke point; she recommends that her customers keep two kinds of olive oil in their kitchens.)

Although I balk at those $18 to $40 bottles, the truth is, the high price of these labor-intensive, hand-picked and -pressed oils is unavoidable. And for those who can afford them, they're worth it -- for their pure deliciousness, and because buying them not only supports family groves, but carries forward a rich tradition.

Slowly.


Drilling for Oil

Searching for good olive oil can be the pits. James Moore offers these suggestions for where to look:

• Mega-discount stores, such as Costco, which stock grade "pure" and occasionally feature good deals on an extra-virgin oil purchased as a bulk lot.

• Supermarket/grocery stores, where quality depends on the selection made by buyers and varies from chain to chain. The selections at Wild Oats and Whole Foods are often quite good.

• Specialty/boutique shops -- including the Peppercorn in Boulder and the Truffle and Spinelli's in Denver -- that deal exclusively in extra-premium, unfiltered brands that list the date, olive blend and other information on the label. Some of these stores have exclusive dibs on artisan-produced oils, too.

• Mail-order houses, which offer large selections of oils often not available from other sources. (Be sure to ask if the oils are shipped in temperature-controlled containers.) Some good options: the Rare Wine Co. (rarewineco.com, 1-800-999-4342); Oliviers and Co (oliviersandco.com, 1-415-474-1408); Corti Brothers (sciabica.com, 1-209-577-5067); Dean & Deluca (deandeluca.com, 1-877-826-9246).

• Down on the farm: Without a doubt, the best purveyor is the source itself. At farms in the Napa and Sonoma valleys in California, you can taste different batches and watch your selections being bottled.

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