It hit me in one of those ubiquitous olive oil shops. This oil reeks of tomato leaf. Just like one I tasted a minute ago. Turns out they were made from the same olive variety. As with grapes and wine, single varietal olive oils showcase the distinct aromas & flavors of the olive used, and well-made blends combine the unique elements of each olive to create harmony in the bottle. This is just one of the ways that extra virgin olive oil is like wine, and a small insight as to why good oil is no more a commodity product than our favorite beverage. There are, of course, mass-produced, characterless examples of both, but as we already know about wine, the finest versions offer much more nuance, complexity, even guile to those paying attention.
EVOO has little in common with other cooking oils such as canola and others, even so-called pure or light olive oils. Those are refined, which means they’re put through a chemical process to strip foul flavors and render them inert. EVOO, on the other hand, is basically freshly-squeezed olive juice that, in the hands of the right producer, showcases the unique elements of both variety and terroir.
As with wine, the art of pairing oil with food is crucial to maximum enjoyment. (We’re talking raw oil here, the only way to use the best stuff. Heat is the enemy.) Though variety matters, particularly for connoisseurs, flavor intensity — a result of ripeness at harvest — is a better place to start. Strongly flavored oils pair best with rich foods, for example, while delicate oils show their best stuff alongside lighter fare. Sound familiar?
Harvesting early produces robust oils that are pungent and bitter, but less juice runs from unripe fruit. As the olives ripen on the tree, fruity flavors develop, then round, buttery notes. Medium intensity oils offer a mix of green bitterness and judicious fruit, whereas delicate (or mild) oils are round, smooth, and rarely bitter. Don’t, however, mistake the label delicate for lacking in flavor. Just like restrained old world wines, they’re delicious when made deftly.
Like any food or drink, the path to enlightenment involves comparative tasting. I suggest starting with three oils — one of each intensity. First, try them alone, drinking a small amount just as you would wine. (Pros use a special blue glass that hides potentially misleading color, which doesn’t impact flavor.) Swirl, sniff, sip, slurp, and swallow. Though odd at first to drink oil, it’s important to gauge throat burn, a sign of good oil. Note the aromas and flavors. How intense are the herbal and grassy notes? How ripe is the fruit? (Apple, banana and tropical fruits are common.) One might also note almonds, walnuts or flowers. On the finish, is it peppery and bitter, or smooth and buttery? Are there any off notes? Bad oils might feature rancid flavors or flabby texture, and barnyard is most definitely not a positive here. (Like wine, of course, there are certain divisive but acceptable flavors, such as the aforementioned tomato leaf.)
Next, try each oil with a variety of foods. An easy choice is bread, especially several of varying flavor strengths, such as a white baguette, a rustic farmhouse and a rich, whole wheat loaf. Soak each piece, and notice how the bread’s flavor intensity affects the oil. (Drizzling over a variety of simply cooked meats or vegetables will also work well.)
Though many differences between wine and oil are obvious, hopefully this exercise will illustrate how we can evaluate and enjoy them in similar ways. I’m not suggesting stocking a cellar with oil —fresher is always better here — but that redirecting even a morsel of the obsession normally reserved for vinous pursuits will reap rich benefits.
So find a trustworthy oil vendor. (Start here.) Experiment with different olives, blends and regions. Host a blind tasting. Finish plates with a golden flourish. And always, always dip your bread.
Types of Olives
There are hundreds of different olive varieties, and ripeness at harvest plays a major factor in any oil’s flavor. That said, here’s a brief overview of some common olives used for oil:
Arbequina Native to Spain’s Catalonia but also popular in California, this versatile olive is fruity, round, and easygoing. It can showcase a distinct almond note.
Frantoio Often the lead olive in blends labeled Tuscan or Italian, it’s bold and assertive, with grassy and peppery notes. In Tuscany, it’s picked early to accentuate these flavors.
Koroneiki Perhaps the signature olive of Greece but growing in popularity worldwide, this delivers pungent oils that feature tropical fruit and herbs.
Picual Maligned for its use in flawed, bulk oils, it can shine when handled properly. Intense notes of green tomato and tomato leaf impart a unique flavor.
Mission Though originally from Spain, sometimes considered California’s “native” variety due to a long history in the state. Grassy and peppery, its early harvest oils can present green tomato and pine, while late harvest versions can be round and buttery.