There are not many people in the world that qualify as olive oil experts, but journalist Tom Mueller has rightfully earned the title. It all started with Slippery Slope: The trade in unadulterated olive oil, a 2007 New Yorker magazine exposé on the olive oil industry that detailed the rampant fraud enveloping the world’s extra virgin olive oil supply. Four years later, Mueller is adding to his expert credentials with a new book called Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (W.W. Norton; December 5, 2011; $25.95; hardcover). To celebrate the book’s release, Los Angeles’ Great Temple of Olive Oil, Fig & Olive on Melrose Place, hosted a private dinner and guided olive oil tasting.
Fig & Olive is the rare Mediterranean restaurant that eschews butter and cream to focus on the viscous joys of olive oil. That made it the perfect location to hear Mueller give a mini-lecture on the finer points of his current muse. Attendees learned the history of olive oil, the best time to consume the oil after harvest (immediately!), as well as broad details of the current olive oil controversy. Apparently, most of the olive oil that winds up being labeled as Italian extra virgin olive oil is actually inferior oil trucked in from Spain and combined with less-prestigious oils, dyes, and artificial flavoring. Since the process of making authentic extra virgin olive oil is so time-sensitive and expensive, there’s actually a good chance the whole legitimate industry could collapse in the future. According to Mueller, “If great oil isn’t distinguished from the bad oil quickly, it’ll disappear.”
After the talk, all of the guests participated in an olive oil tasting with three different high quality extra virgin oils and one designer imposter. If you’ve never been to an olive oil tasting, it’s similar to a wine tasting, only with a lot more coughing – that’s due to the high levels of polyphenols in the more assertive oils. The oil came out in tiny shot glasses and everyone was instructed to first warm the oil in their hands in order to release the flavors. After warming, you’re supposed to sip the oil and then slurp it through your mouth with a sound that comes close to a Japanese salaryman going crazy on a bowl of ramen. This is apparently to aerosolize the oil, which means something like “make it taste better.”
The first oil sampled was Manzanillo, a light and sweet olive oil from California that was definitely on the mellow, yellow end of the spectrum. The tasting guide claimed that it had a sweet fruit taste with “notes of strawberries and grass.” It didn’t taste much like strawberries or grass. It tasted like olive oil – a good one, at that. Not as good as the next oil, however.
Nocellara comes from Sicily and it was the only sample from the “medium & green” category. Despite being the only representative of its classification, it emerged as the favorite of the night, especially when it showed up for dessert paired with citrus segments, fresh mint and green apple sorbet. Fig & Olive owner Laurent Halasz hovered expectantly like a proud papa as everyone tried the olive oil-sorbet combination and after one bite, it was clear why. Surprisingly well matched, this duo deserves a lot more attention.
The last high-quality oil of the tasting was the bold Hojiblanca from Spain. Even though most people couldn’t pronounce it, the sounds of Hojiblanca were all over the room in the form of coughing. This one hits your throat like a power punch. It’s categorized as “assertive & peppery,” but “aggressive & spicy” is more like it. This is all thanks to an elevated level of polyphenol, the organic chemical that gives some olive oils a tremendous bite. After one sip of Hojiblanca, almost everyone needed a few of the green apple slices that were being used as palate cleansers.
When everyone had finished tasting the good olive oils, they were all served a small thimble’s worth of bad olive oil from a well-known brand you can find on most grocery store shelves. The difference was astounding. While the curated bottles were rich and distinct, the flavor of the low-end version was muddled and bland. Clearly, this “extra virgin olive oil” was anything but. There was no denying it: the proof was in the oil.
After the tasting, guests were served a four-course meal starting with Fig & Olive’s signature zucchini carpaccio, a fish course, a meat course and the aforementioned green apple sorbet for dessert. Each course was paired with an olive oil specially chosen to match the characteristics of the dish. The striped bass en papillote came with a mild Portuguese Arbequina oil, while the more intense rosemary lamb chops were matched with the spicy Hojiblanca since grilled meats and stronger flavors work better with more assertive olive oils.
All in all, everyone walked away from the meal completely full of olive oil and even more full of olive oil knowledge. Tom Mueller brings up some incredibly interesting points on the subject and hopefully he’ll get his wish to see “the good guys triumph and the bad guys at least clean up their act.” While the food lovers of the world obsess about the sourcing of just about everything they eat, perhaps it’s finally time to pay serious attention to the oil that’s fueled the world for centuries.