A few years back, while staying at the Perxe casa rural in La Molina, we were privy to taste our very first Montsant olive oil made from theÂ Arbequine olive. Sitting at a large wooden table with a loaf of bread, we dipped into the brilliant light jade colored oil, and as we brought the bread to our lips, the overwhelming scent of freshly cut grass filled our heads. The taste was peppery and sweet with a lovely herbal finish that lingered for ages on our tongues.
“What is this?!” we asked enthusiastically of our smiling host.
“Olive oil produced in the area and made with the native Arbequina olive”, she replied with a slight sigh, a question we knew every wide-eyed tourist asked of her.
Scuttering off to the back room, she returned minutes later with an unmarked wine bottle and placed it gently on the table.
“I fill up large jugs at the cooperative up the road, so really, it’s no trouble having you bring some home to enjoy.”
I don’t remember how quickly we consumed that bottle, but I can tell you that it was an unforgettable experience.
Many of you are familiar with Spanish olive oil, having previously swooned over its quality and bright flavors, but others have not, believing that only Italy takes center stage in olive oil production. It is true that Italy is the world’s leading consumer and exporter of olive oil,Â but annually, Italians buy up vast quantities of olive oil from Spain and sell it with “bottled in Italy” labels. In the August 13, 2007 issue of the The New Yorker, Tom Mueller alleged that, “For the past ten years, Spain has produced more oil than Italy, but much of it is shipped to Italy for packaging and is sold, legally, as Italian oil”.
This does not mean that Italy doesn’t produce some exquisite olive oil, but it does mean that Spain is clearly a leader in the field, owing much of its success to the region of Jaen, which boasts of owning some of the largest olive groves in the world.
So if I’ve done my job correctly, your interest has now been piqued and you’re willing to head down to your local market and buy up a few bottles of Spanish olive oil, but how do you know what to look for?
Grades of Olive Oil
Ideally, you’re looking for “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” on the label for a few very important reasons. First, the olive oil is obtained by purely mechanical methods, meaning that it is free of any chemical additives. Secondarily, unlike lower grade olive oils,Â it can be heated up to 180 degrees Celsius, drained off your pan and used again; whereby making it not only affordable, but also sustainable. Third, it’s fabulous for your health, because it reduces cholesterol and is high in vitamin E. And last, but not least, it’s delicious!
Beyond Extra Virgin, you can also find Virgin Olive Oil, Pure Olive Oil and Olive Oil. Virgin is identical to Extra Virgin, except in its acidity level. While Extra Virgin contain .8% acidity, Virgin clocks in around 2%. Pure Olive Oil and Olive Oil are essentially the same in that they both are a blend of refined and Virgin Olive Oil, but again, the difference lies in the acidity.
Storing and Serving Olive Oil
How many of us know someone who has kept a bottle of olive oil in their cupboard for decades? If I didn’t live in Spain, I most likely would put myself in this category as well; and unfortunately, it is the same mistake we tend to make with various styles of wine, sherry wine not excluded. So let’s try and clarify this.
A few weeks back, while in Montsant, we had the priviledge of meeting Anna Figueras and Joaquim Calvo, a professional olive oil taster, in their home in Torroja. While Joaquim was fixated on his cheesecake, sans cheese, Anna presented us with her book “L’Exira Daurat”. “L’Exira Daurat” is a beautiful coffee table book written in 3 languages about the DO Siurana olive oil culture in the wine appellation of DO Montsant, and commits a section specifically to how one should store their olive oil effectively. As I felt these suggestions were spot on, allow me to present you with the top 7 ways suggested by Anna and Joaquim:
- Keep away from light, preferably in opaque packaging. If the bottle is transparent, it is better kept in a box.
- Avoid all contact with air and do not shake it. Once the bottle has been opened, it should be eaten [consumed] as soon as possible.
- It should be eaten [sic] within the same year, as it grows old with time. [i.e. check bottling date!]
- If you can afford it, a small bottle is better than a bigger one.
- If you use table servers, please clean them well from time to time. [Here they are referring to pouring spouts or containers]
- If you need to store it, the larder [pantry] is better than the kitchen.
- If you use it for frying: Wait until it is very hot before adding food. Do not add salt to the food until you have taken it out of the oil (if the recipe allows). Leave it to cool down and filter it when you have finished frying. Re-use it by adding some fresh oil. Change the oil for fresh oil if it starts to smoke or does not look very good.
Tasting Olive Oil
If you read our article on tasting tea, and the nuances in how we taste it, olive oil falls in much the same camp. In olive oil, however, the initial stage of detecting the aroma is a little different than in wine and tea. When tasting olive oil, ideally it should be at 28 degrees Celsius, and you should also have a green apple, which contains high acidity to cut the oil, or a glass of water close by to cleanse the palate. (Geek Alert: if you don’t check the temperature of the oil or have a green apple nearby, the world will not end, continue at your own pace) In a wider glass, pour in the olive oil, cover it with a lid and swirl, so that the olive oil coats the entire glass. Remove the glass and inhale. The rest of the tasting process is identical to that of wine and tea. What is key however is that you do not find the following aromas or flavors when tasting olive oil: vinegar, mold, fermentation, sediment from the bottom of an olive oil tank, rancid, earthy – similar to mold or dirty olive oil.
Another trivia tip is that many bodegas in Iberia either harvest olives or produce olive oil, because the harvest date come directly after the grape harvest, allowing for a second income come winter.
Our suggestion, go out and buy a handful of Extra Virgin Olive Oils from either Spain and do a tasting; pair the olive oils with different wines; or simply, buy a chunk of bread, invite some friends over and lay out a half dozen olive oils to enjoy through the evening.
Tell us your experience!
What is your favorite olive oil? Have you experienced an olive oil tasting?