Flash in the Pan: Olive oil ology

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A few years ago in Rome, I found myself in a cramped room drinking olive oil from a cup. I was with a group of food writers, learning how to properly taste olive oil before traveling to the hilltop city of Perugia, where we would call upon our new tasting skills to work at an annual event celebrating Italy’s best artisan extra-virgin olive oils. But first, we needed a better understanding of the magical culinary ointment that we’d be sampling.

We weren’t walking around dipping bread in bowls of oil, like you do in tasting events that steer you toward a purchase. This was a serious effort to understand the complex properties of a fine extra-virgin olive oil, or EVOO. To this end, we finished each sip with a loud, drawn-out slurp called a stripaggio.

First, we covered each sample cup with a hand to let the vapors build. We then would rotate the cup circularly to coax more vapors into the trapped air above the oil, and take a whiff while staring thoughtfully toward the horizon. The smell of a good olive oil can be fruity, or dominated by the famous “fresh cut grass” smell of chlorophyll, or more elusive odors like rosemary, artichoke, green tomato or tropical fruits.

At the time, Italy was reeling from some oil-based scandals. It was discovered that olive oil labeled as EVOO from Italy was sometimes neither Italian, extra-virgin nor even pure olive oil. The investigation involved trained tasters doing what we were doing, in order to discern the true elixir from the frauds.

After some deep nasal inhales, I learned to sip the oil and work it around my mouth, feeling the viscosity and tasting the progression of piquancy and bitterness that gives quality EVOO its personality.

Finally, we slurped. The stripaggio is not delicate. Most people would be embarrassed to make sounds like that while eating, but not with a roomful of gung-ho food nerds.

Sucking air through the olive oil in your mouth disperses oil droplets to hard-to-reach taste receptors of the tongue and throat, helping to paint a fuller picture of the oil’s flavor. Meanwhile, as the air stretches the oil, you can feel its viscosity and how it holds together in the turbulence of your stripaggio.

Some oil starts with a fruity whiff and a buttery kiss and stays smooth all the way through, making it good for baking, or for dressing a lettuce-based salad. Some oil starts with a kiss and ends with a slap, or at least a raspy cat lick to the throat, making it more suitable for pairing with stronger flavors like chicory salads, or drizzled on pasta or other savory dishes.

Since my olive oil education, EVOO began filling the niche that I previously filled with mayonnaise, my “energy dense” condiment of choice. Mayo, like olive oil, has properties of texture as well as flavor. And they both improve food with fat.

Back home, I regarded California olive oil with newfound interest. As with wine, you can find some amazing olive oil coming out of the Golden State, if you know where to look. They include large-scale, high-density operations with mechanical harvesters, as well as small artisanal producers — much like the ones I visited with my group in Italy. There are Italian fingerprints all over California’s wine and olive oil industries, thanks to waves of immigrants who felt at home in that Mediterranean climate of the American West and planted many of the state’s original vineyards.

High-end olive oil doesn’t come cheap and should be appreciated to the max. You should consider it more of a main event and less as a supporting sauce for the main event. The thing that the oil goes on is a substrate, a stage upon which to display the star in all of its glory.

My favorite substrate is bread. I know, I just said that bread isn’t for real olive oil tasting. It gets in the way because it tastes so good it’s hard to stay focused, and next thing you know you’re in a food coma.  And if you try to slurp the oily bread, you might inhale breadcrumbs and choke. The bread is for proper enjoyment of the EVOO, rather than evaluation.

So get yourself a good, crusty loaf, some tasty olive oil and some salt. You don’t need pepper, because a good EVOO has those peppery notes. But some minced garlic will all but guarantee the addictive nature of the meal. Mix up the oil, salt and garlic, and start dipping. Let the seasoned oil impregnate the spongy bread, and enjoy the greasy green grassy goodness.

(Flash in the Pan is food writer Ari LeVaux’s weekly recipe column. It runs in about 100 newspapers nationwide, nourishing food sections large and small with complete protein for the belly brain.)

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