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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."
"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.
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.