Gore Vidal, author, and one of my favourite American raconteurs, lived for many years on Italy's Amalfi coast in a place called Ravello. His home, La Rondinaia, was built at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. The garden there was full of olive trees. I have often imagined Vidal sitting beneath one of those trees, with an afternoon glass of Chianti, munching on olives and scratching out chapters of "Burr," "Lincoln" or "Empire," by hand. The sun would be high, the sky and sea brilliant blues, and the air, warm and fragrant with tropical scents.
Now, whenever I see piles of green and black olives in a supermarket olive cart, or rows of various olive oils, I think of sunshine, blue sky, sweetness and la dolce vita. It's a common occurrence. I use a lot of olive oil. I use it mostly in dishes that have already been cooked or are near the end of the cooking process.
Of course, I also use it on cold foods like salads or with balsamic vinegar as a dip for bread. I never use it for frying or sautÉing. It's a lousy oil to use for high heat cooking because it will stick to your pan and smoke like hell above 350 F. (For that kind of cooking I recommend canola oil.) The health benefits of olive oil are also diminished when it's exposed to high temperatures.
Time recently reported that many Gotham gourmets are now seeking intense culinary experiences through pricey items like Lambda brand olive oil from Greece at $182 per litre.
That may sound outrageous to most of us, but there are St. John's foodies who wouldn't bat an eye at making such a purchase. Curious to see what was available here, I decided to make the rounds of local upscale food stores.
While a few places like Belbin's and Manna Bakery carried a handful of olive oils in the $15 to $25 range, I could find only one retailer carrying several brands for $25 to $55 per bottle. That was Jumping Bean Coffee on Harvey Road. Their upper range included Oliveto Fonte di Foiano Extra Vergine at $35, Masi Olive Oil, $37, Frantoio di Sommaia Extra Vigin, $52 and Sassicaia, Tenuta San Guido, $55.
The first thing you should know about olive oil is that it does not improve with age. Oxygen, time and light are its enemies. That's why I only buy olive oil in dark bottles. Dark, thick glass protects the oil from light.
I also like to purchase olive oil in smaller bottles because that cuts back on the amount of oxygen it's exposed to in the bottle, once you start using it.
The smaller bottle will run out quicker, which means the oil is not standing around long enough to go rancid. Believe me, it will. There's a lot of rancid oil out there as a result of oxygen exposure and advanced age.
Olives are picked at various stages of maturity. The colour depends on when they were picked. Green means they were picked in August, red or purple, November, and black in late November.
Timely processing is important when making oil from any colour olive. After harvesting, the olives are quickly washed in warm water. Then a hammer mill crushes them or an old-fashioned stone (weighing tons) rolls over and over them in clockwise and counter--clockwise circles.
Eventually, the creamy mash is placed in a kneader where the oil is extracted. When producing premium oil, time in the kneader is limited to 45 minutes, because you don't want the oil exposed to oxygen too long. Finally, the olive oil is stored in a large tank and bottled in batches as needed.
Jumping Bean Coffee owner Jeff LeDrew reminded me that the maturity of the olive affects the taste as well.
"Olives harvested early contain more chlorophyll and produce green coloured oil. They often taste somewhat bitter and finish with strong peppery notes. Oils harvested late have a golden colour and contain grassy or herbal notes."
I wanted to compare the taste of a pricey oil with the taste of a relatively inexpensive supermarket product. Not being gutsy enough to spend $55 for the Tenuta San Guido, I opted to buy a 500 mL bottle of extra virgin oil by television chef Christine Cushing. It cost me $26.
The oil is a product of Greece and apparently was awarded a First Prize for Intense Fruitiness from the International Olive Oil Council. For my tasting I compared it with President's Choice Extra Virgin and Bertolli Extra Virgin.
The Bertolli wasn't even in the ballpark - a crude minor leaguer. I don't recommend it for bread dipping. The President's Choice product had some flavour but the finish was a bit rough. The Christine Cushing, on the other hand, was far superior. It tasted fresh, fruity and had a smooth buttery finish. I used a piece of bread to mop it all up so as not to waste a drop of my $26 purchase.
As a result of my little tasting I think I will eventually get up the nerve to buy an even more expensive oil. For now, I'm content to enjoy what remains of my Christine Cushing oil, although I must remember to use it up in a timely manner. Remember, oxygen plus time equals rancid. My first meal using my expensive olive oil will be a little shrimp number I created just to show off the rich qualities of my favourite oil. Enjoy!
Karl's Garlic Shrimp Spaghetti with Olive Oil
4 portions dry spaghetti
1 lb. raw fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tbsp. real butter
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp. freshly chopped chives
1 tbsp. chopped flat leaf parsley
1 cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tbsp. premium extra virgin olive oil
Submerge spaghetti in boiling water and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from heat. Drain off 2 or 3 cups of boiled water and replace with cold water to stop pasta from cooking. Heat 1 tbsp. butter in large sautÉ pan till frothy and add garlic. Cook garlic until it turns gold. Remove from pan and set aside. Add last tablespoon of butter to pan. Once pan is coated add shrimp and cook for 3 minutes, stirring often. Remove shrimp and set aside. Deglaze hot pan with cup of wine. Stir and scrape bottom of pan. Drain spaghetti and add to wine mixture. Continue cooking for 2 minutes, tossing and stirring the pasta. Add shrimp with juices, cooked garlic, chives and parsley. Toss to mix. Pour olive oil over all. Salt and pepper to taste. Toss to mix. Try to get everything coated with the delicious olive oil. Serve on four separate heated plates. Sprinkle a tiny amount of the Parmesan on top of each serving. Buon appetito!