by Donna Sozio
Italians are fussy. Particular. They demand quality. Especially when it comes to extra virgin olive oil. Delicious, fresh and fragrant extra virgin olive oil is so sacred to Italians that they often travel with their own stash, rather than risk being subjected to inferior oil at the table.
In most Italian homes, silver trays showcase top shelf extra virgin olive oils. Some are home-pressed and gifted by relatives living in the Italian countryside. Other oils were purchased while on vacation in Tuscany, Puglia or Umbria.
Italians use their best extra virgin olive oil crudo - meaning drizzled raw - on vegetables, pastas and meat to add rich, peppery or fruity layers of flavor. With the best oil, you only need a few divine drops to make your taste buds sing.
After I tasted the top shelf good stuff, there was no going back. I was completely seduced and wanted to learn more about these mysterious dark glass bottles filled with green and golden liquid displayed on silver trays. So I went to the experts. This is what I learned:
Develop your Palate
The first step to appreciating crudo extra virgin olive oil is to become an assagiatore – an expert - in discerning its diverse flavors. First, taste the oil straight up. Put a drop or two on your tongue. Roll it around your mouth like you would a good wine. Close your eyes. Surrender to the experience and you’ll notice different layers of notes, flavors and sensations emerge.
Filippo Peppucci, an independent producer of Umbrian olive oil, explains “a tingling sensation is characteristic of oils produced at the beginning of the season. Mainly from olives that are still green.” He adds that “the range of smell and taste depends upon the variety of the olive and whether they are green or mature.”
Like terroir for wine, where the olives are grown in Italy affects their flavor. Head Chef Dario Abbate at Castello di Velona says, “In Sicily, the flavor of the olives changes one kilometer to the next.”
Flavors can range from a rich or peppery finish to fruity and grassy. And don’t forget the blends. One of my favorites is Umbria’s Roccafiore organic extra virgin olive oil with a fragrant mix of moraiolo, frantoio and leccino olives.
After developing a sense of how different extra virgin olive oils taste, Luca Sessa, a celebrity chef on Italian TV, takes it a step further. He suggests “understanding what will please your palate, tasting simple recipes that allow you to appreciate diverse flavors. Try different extra virgin olive oils drizzled over a simple bruschetta, grilled meat or fish or marinated vegetables.”
Learn to Pair Well
Italians take as much care pairing the perfect extra virgin olive oil with their meals as they do selecting the right wine. Giuseppe Angelini, head chef at Puglia’s famed hotel Masseria San Domenico offers delicious pairing advice: “For salads, boiled or grilled vegetables, or bruschette,” he says, “I use an extra virgin olive oil with an overt flavor, more robust with fruity notes, extracted from coratina olives.
For fish, meats, or pasta including raw or cooked vegetables, I use an extra virgin olive oil that is sweeter and more delicate, harvested from nocellare del belice or frantoiane olives. For cooked dishes, I use an extra virgin olive oil that is a blend of a variety of olives produced here, which is very light and can be adapted to various dishes and flavors.”
Chef Luca Sessa adds that to pair extra virgin olive oil and meals well, you must know how each tastes separately to combine notes for a harmony of flavors. He explains that “intense oils can ruin delicate ingredients and the flavors of delicate oils can be covered by strong spices.”
Head Chef Dario Abbate: “My favorite oils are from Trapani and Syracuse in Sicily. For me, Sicilian extra virgin olive oil expresses the flavors and aromas of a land still untouched and full of history. When I use oils from Sicily, I feel such emotion that it becomes a flavor of its own, which guests can taste in the dishes I prepare for them.”
TV Chef Luca Sessa: “I particularly like the oil of Umbria, with its bitter and spicy notes. And that of Puglia, fruity and enveloping. Often I purchase oil from small producers, who create products of great quality.”
Author of Eating Rome, Elizabeth Minchilli: “I usually have a few bottles open at a time. Remember that olive oil doesn’t last forever. You may be tempted because of its cost to save your best olive oil for special occasions. The problem is that once opened, you really should use it up within a year at the most.”