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An olive-oil education

(article, Jim Dixon)

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I had my olive-oil epiphany in Italy. But it wasn’t one of those clichéd Under the Tuscan Sun experiences in a sun-dappled grove of ancient gray-green trees. There wasn’t even any food involved. 

I’d been cooking with olive oil for years. I bought Bertolli, extra virgin, by the half gallon at Costco and used it for everything from sautéing onions to grilling salmon to making salad dressing. It definitely made things taste better. 


h1. Extra virgin, extra confusing

Everywhere you look, a recipe calls for olive oil. Is extra virgin always best? And those fancy little bottles of “evoo” that cost as much as medicine — are they worth buying? Jim Dixon spells it out for you.


But I didn’t really know what I was missing until a wet and cold November day almost 10 years ago. My wife, Judith, and I were in Italy looking, as usual, for food. I was driving through the outskirts of one of the countless small hill towns that dot western Tuscany, speeding along past the dreary commercial buildings that constitute the Italian version of the strip mall. Judith pointed out a flash of bright green moving in front of a nondescript warehouse. I recognized the familiar agricultural bins on a forklift and, as the scene slipped behind us, realized that the green spheres inside the bins were olives.

[%image forklift size=small credit="Photo: Jim Dixon" float=right caption="At the frantoio."]

We turned around. I pulled in past the olive-laden forklift, which was part of a line of mismatched vehicles all bearing similar loads. A Piaggio Ape, the ubiquitous three-wheeled scooter that serves as a sort of Euro-pickup, jockeyed for position with a trailer-towing farm tractor and an old Fiat, its back seat full of olives. We had found the local frantoio. 

Frantoio is Italian for olive press, and nearly every community in the olive-growing regions of Italy has one. Growers bring their olives for pressing, typically in exchange for a portion of the oil. During the short harvest the frantoio runs nonstop, since the olives must be pressed within 24 hours of picking or they begin to oxidize and ferment. 

As those bearing olives waited their turn, others left the building with plastic jugs or the small stainless steel barrels called fustini filled with oil. Inside, the forklift ferried bins of olives to the press. A fine spray of water rinsed the fruit, and a blast of air blew out any stray leaves as the olives moved toward the rolling granite wheels of the crusher. The olive paste disappeared into one end of a long row of growling machinery. At the other end a stream of green oil, opaque and neon bright, poured into a barrel under the watchful eye of the grower. 

We eventually found the harried frantoio manager, and between my rudimentary Italian and his much better English, we managed to communicate. He led us into a small storage area crowded with barrels, popped the lid off one, and dipped a ladle into the oil. He poured some into a paper cup, and I took a taste.

[%image oilpress credit="Photo: Jim Dixon" size=small float=left caption="A modern olive-oil press."]

Viscous and cloudy with sediment, the fresh oil hit me with an intensely fruity flavor followed by a slightly bitter taste reminiscent of artichokes. A sharp, peppery finish caught me by surprise. I had never tasted anything quite like it.

After we returned from our Italian vacation, I read whatever I could about olive oil. I learned that what the Italians call olio nuovo (literally, “new oil”) is loaded with the antioxidant compounds that make it good for you, that those same compounds are responsible for the peppery quality, and that their levels diminish over time. That’s why the olive oil available at the supermarket, which is often at least a year old, doesn’t have the same intense flavors I experienced at the frantoio.

But even in olive-growing areas like Italy, the freshly pressed new oil is considered a short-lived, seasonal treat. It provides a welcome infusion of fresh flavor to hearty winter dishes such as beans, cabbage, and root vegetables. By the time the first delicate spring produce comes up, the oil has lost some of its bite.

With my new awareness of the real flavor of extra-virgin olive oil, I faced a dilemma: We couldn’t go to Italy every year to carry home a new supply, but I was using more olive oil than ever (and we were eating better than ever, too). It wasn’t until another trip to Italy a couple of years later, and another encounter with a small oil producer, that I found the answer. To support my own olive-oil habit, I started importing it myself.

p(bio). Longtime food writer Jim Dixon sells olive oil and sea salt in Portland, Oregon. He writes about food at Real Good Food.

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