Pass the Oil, Please

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The truth of the matter is, much of what I’m eating today is an excuse to consume olive oil.  Salads with spiral-cut zucchini and arugula and tuna–it’s a dish that wants a generous anointing with extra virgin olive oil.  Fava beans with chopped tomato–oh, yes, let there be oil. On a steak or a slab of fish, oil provides a definite enhancement. Last night, snacking lightly, I ate a chunk of bread leftover from lunch, giving it a drizzle of olive oil to soak into those dried dimples and crevices, topped with a few slices of mozzarella and leftover scraps of zucchini spirals.

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I grew up on margarine, yellow butter-esque chemically-stabilized vegetable spreads purported to be a healthy alternative to butter. The only oil I was acquainted with was Quaker State.  Cholesterol had not been invented. No one talked about good fats and bad fats. No one much correlated food with health, except in terms of tonnage, as in Maybe don’t take a fourth helping of that pie, son.  

In time, thanks to Signora Canducci, I’ve come to think of olive oil as indispensable.  

Some years ago we took a group to Tuscany. We stayed four nights on a working vineyard near Radda-in-Chianti. We did not work. Our labors consisted of eating and drinking. For the second day I had foolishly booked two wine-tasting experiences, one in Volpaia, the other at Badia a Coltibuono, with a break for a long lunch. There are those with the capacity to taste lots of wine.  I am not one of those. After the third or fourth pour, even with spits and dumps, the luster is off the experience.

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At Badia, however, we had taken the olive oil tasting option. Guido poured three or four of their oils into small paper shot glasses and laid out plates of bread for dunking. While he talked oil science, we tasted. Cold pressed, virgin, extra virgin, unrefined, refined, low in acid content, short on shelf life. All very interesting. Again, as with the wine tasting experience, I sort of zoned out.  But loved the oil. Really loved it. Q: Which oil did I like the best? A: Yes.

Another year, when the Buca del Orafo was still in the old capable hands of Mario and Piero, we sat down to a dish of ribollita for lunch one day.  Piero, tall and gentle and still light on his feet, came to the table and said we really should have a generous pour of their delicious Tuscan olive oil over our soup. He poured.  And it was the right thing to do.

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I know people who keep 3-4 oils in the pantry.  I get it. One for cooking, one for saute, one for salad and vegetables.  More oil just for the luxury.

Oil vs Oils.  

I think about Piero’s pour, knowing they probably buy one olive oil in bulk from a local provider for liberal uses, just as a trattoria in Italy will buy their one house wine, red and white, from a local producer.  Also I think about my wife’s home town in San Marino.  One fall, we were sitting at the coffee bar in the main piazza. I saw people lugging jugs back and forth from the mill to their homes. The new oil. I thought: I want that. All over Italy the local oil and wine are high quality. There’s not a lot of fuss about tasting, sampling, weighing the virtues of one over the other. One oil.

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I buy an extra virgin Italian olive oil at Costco. There’s the Signature oil and the Organic oil, both in two liter jugs.  I can’t taste the difference. (I confess I’ve never tried.) Just now the organic oil costs a couple dollars less than the signature oil. In a year we use 12-13 jugs, that’s about 7 gallons.

Buyer beware.  According to The New York Times, “Much of the extra virgin Italian olive oil flooding the world’s market shelves is neither Italian, nor virgin.” What, not virgin? Say it ain’t so. Samin Nosrat, author of Salt Fat Acid Heat, a cookbook, begs to differ. The Costco oil in the 2 liter jug, she says, “regularly scores well on independent administered quality analyses.”

I’m happy.  It ain’t broken. I’m trusting Ms. Nostrat and my tastebuds.     

Mario, a few floors above us in our building in San Marino, grows a garden somewhere down the road. This past year he had a bumper crop of fava beans, more than he knew what to do with. A couple times I opened the door to find a bag of them hanging on the handle. Fava beans are work–extracting the beans from the pods, blanching them and then extracting each bean from its jacket. Once you’re you’ve done the work, on a plate they’re so green they’re almost blinding.  I drizzled oil over them. Not the local oil, the one milled up the street in town. This was an oil milled a few kilometers up the road. For the time being, my one and only oil.

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