Extra virgin olive oil — nectar of the gods
Matt Dine of Old Town Oil pours a sample oil for tasting in the Evanston store.
Tips for shopping and storage
Oxygen, heat and light are the three worst enemies for fine olive oil so buy your oil in smaller amounts in dark bottles and keep in a cool, dark place.
Unlike wines, olive oils do not improve with age. Shelf life is about one year unopened, three months opened.
How to tell if it’s rancid: Smells like crayons or musty paint, especially when heated.
Taste olive oil on its own; soaking in bread makes it difficult to discern the oil’s characteristics.
Though a high price doesn’t guarantee a good oil, anything less than $10 per liter suggests the olive oil has been adulterated or blended.
The Olive Oil Source recommends substituting olive oil for butter or margarine, and has even put together a chart calculating substitutions (www.oliveoilsource.com/page/conversion-chart).
Olive oil trivia
Tom Mueller offers these nuggets of information in his book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime, Scandalous, World of Olive Oil (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).
Pepperiness, bitterness (uncured olives are extremely bitter) and fruitiness are the three positive flavor profiles of true extra virgin olive oil.
Olive oil forms the core of the Mediterranean diet along with vegetables, fruit, bread, fish and pasta.
Like wine, the flavor profile of good olive oils varies from year to year and grower to grower, depending on the olive source, climate, soil and weather conditions.
Americans eat a little less than a liter of olive oil annually, compared to 21 liters for Greeks, 13 liters in Italy and Spain and 1 liter in Britain. But the United States has the third largest overall oil consumption in the world, a market of $1.5 billion and growing at 10 percent a year.
Color does not relate to quality; different olives impart a different color to their oils.
Olive oil is the only “vegetable” oil made from a fruit, not a seed like sunflower, canola or corn oil.
Olive oil has been traced back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras.
More than three quarters of the world’s olive oil comes from three countries: Spain is first, Italy second and Greece third.
Updated: April 30, 2012 10:05AM
Pour a small amount of the liquid into a tasting cup.
Swirl, then sniff.
Pour it into your mouth. Slurp it, then swallow.
Does it taste peppery? Buttery? Musty? Grassy?
If you’re thinking wine tasting, you’d be wrong.
With olive oil stores sprouting like daffodils in spring and a plethora of online sources, food aficionados in the Chicago area have been discovering the exquisite taste of genuine extra virgin olive oils.
“We like people to taste before buying,” said Matt Dine, co-owner of Old Town Oil. “We can’t tell someone what tastes good; it’s a personal preference.”
Sandy Schuenemann, co-owner of Oh, Olive! in Glenview and Libertyville, agrees. “We want our clients to appreciate olive oil,” she said. “We want them to know it’s healthy and tastes good.”
Extra virgin olive oil adds a distinctive aroma and flavor to many dishes. Salad dressings and marinades, for example, gain new depth when made with real extra virgin olive oil. Pasta dishes also benefit from sautéing ingredients in real olive oil (some experts suggest using a lower grade oil for sautéing) and then being given a finish with a drizzle or two of extra virgin olive oil. Using real olive oil when making bruschetta elevates this appetizer to a different level.
Like wine grapes, different olives produce different tasting oils, from mild to strong. Experts recommend matching the flavor of the oil to its dish: mild olive oils with a fish dish and a more robust olive oil with a beef entrée.
The highest quality olive oil is extra virgin, and in Europe oils must meet a specific chemical profile to be labeled such. (First pressed or cold pressed labeling is outdated, as new technology uses a different process to extract oil.) Because of its quality and preparation, extra virgin is the most expensive olive oil, the best tasting, and the healthiest, with the lowest acidity.
The health properties of olive oil are well documented. This monounsaturated, heart healthy oil has antioxidants and acts as polyphenols for healthy cell life. Studies also seem to indicate that olive oil helps prevent cancer, diabetes and obesity.
Refining, heating or blending extra virgin olive oils compromises all these characteristics. And because the United States has no standards for labeling olive oil, marketers can label a blended or adulterated oil “extra virgin.”
“Extra virgin olive oil is hard to find in a grocery store,” Dine said. “The label says 100 percent pure olive oil, and that sounds pretty good. But pure olive oil could be 90 percent refined oil.”
The UC Davis Olive Center recently surveyed supermarket oils in California and found that 69 percent of them had taste flaws indicating they weren’t extra virgin olive oil.
But the same center found that 74 percent of average testers in another study did not like what expert testers deemed high quality oil. Clearly, the average consumer needs to take an Olive Oil 101 course.
And that is exactly what visitors experience in an olive oil store. Mary Koval, co-owner of Oh, Olive!, says her staff spends 15-20 minutes with each customer, offering them small samples of various oils to find the taste profile best for them.
Dine of Old Town Oil agrees: “A buttery taste is good for some, bitter is good for others. We encourage tasters. Tasting is huge.”
Pasta with lemon and garlic, variation with smoked salmon
Chef Barb, Figueroa Farms Boutique created this recipe for the Olive Oil Source (www.oliveoilsource.com). It’s best made with a medium to intense extra virgin olive oil.
1 pound pasta
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound smoked salmon, chopped
1 leek chopped fine or 3 green onions chopped fine
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2 teaspoons capers
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup grated or shaved Parmesan cheese
Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain.
Break the smoked salmon into bite-size pieces. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add leeks or green onions, and sauté for 2 minutes. Add garlic and salmon pieces. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest, and capers. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper if needed.
Toss salmon mixture with the hot pasta. Drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and top with Parmesan cheese.