Olive Oil Branches Out

The ancient Mediterranean staple soaks up popularity in the US, where `infused' flavors are the rage

Don't judge an olive oil by its color. Avoid olive oil that's labeled `light.' Tips such as these are woven throughout this first installment of a new food series, titled, `Provisions.' The series is aimed at demystifying the process of buying, storing, and cooking some pantry staples. Other provisions stories to watch for: rice, chutney, mustard, hot sauce, and beans.

`THE best olive oil I ever had, I bought in Tuscany,'' remembers Michele Anna Jordan wistfully. ``Abbazia Monte Oliveto Maggiore - it was from a monastery near Siena.

``Artisan-made olive oil is like silk or velvet in your mouth. It has the beautiful aroma of olives, but more earthy,'' continues Ms. Jordan, a food writer. ``What I like is, as you swallow it, there's a long finish of black pepper in the back of your throat.''

Ms. Jordan is the owner of a small catering company in Sebastopol, Calif., and author of ``The Good Cook's Book of Oil and Vinegar'' (Addison-Wesley, 264 pp., 1992, $12.95). She is among a growing number of olive-oil aficionados in the United States who have sopped up a lot of knowledge about Olea Europaea (the olive tree) and the oil of its fruit.

Ancient as it is, olive oil has gained popularity in the US, mainly because of increased interest in Mediterranean cuisine.

``Olive oil is the fat of choice,'' says Joyce Goldstein, whose San Francisco restaurant, Square One, relies heavily on it.

All Mediterranean countries grow olives. According to the International Olive Oil Council, top producers include Spain, Italy, Greece, and Tunisia; the top consumer is Italy.

In the US, consumption of olive oil increased 50 percent from 1987 to 1992, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Forecasted consumption for 1993 is 278 million pounds, putting per capita consumption at about one pound per person.

A short time after olive oil became trendy, it branched out into different flavors. Also called ``infused oils,'' they play host to sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, chile peppers, or herbs.

Initially, some chefs went wild over infused oils - drizzling it on dishes, painting plates, and trying new flavors. Others figured that if they wanted a particular flavor in a dish, they'd add that flavor to the food, not the oil. Giuliano Hazan, author of ``The Classic Pasta Cookbook'' and son of Marcella Hazan, is one of the latter. Still, Mr. Hazan says, ``if somebody presented me with white-truffle olive oil, I wouldn't turn it down.''

Olive oil's natural flavor depends on many factors: seed, climate, soil, ripeness, method of harvest and extraction, and more. In its purest form, the oil is mechanically pressed from the olives, filtered, and consumed soon after. But most olive oil must go through further processing and refining to make it fit for consumption.

Shopping for olive oil can be daunting. One of the most common questions is: What's the difference between virgin and extra-virgin olive oil? Legally, it's based on the percentage of acidity. Extra-virgin olive oil - considered superior - has not been refined and is low in acidity.

But, consumers beware: ``The majority of what's out there that is labeled `extra-virgin' is mass-produced,'' Jordan says. In her book, she explains: ``Large companies frequently sell as extra-virgin a refined oil to which some first-pressed oil has been added for flavor, a practice that is completely legal, but nonetheless deceptive.''

And, by the way, any olive oil labeled ``light'' is nonsense, Jordan says. Avoid it.

So, how do you judge olive oil?

Taste it.

``I look for a certain lack of burning quality,'' Joyce Goldstein says. ``I look for a fruitiness. I don't want a viscous oil; I look for a lightness.''

Giuliano Hazan concurs: ``It should have a good fruit to it, a good flavor to it. That's the point of using olive oil, for its flavor.''

Also, don't judge an oil by its color, he adds.

Jordan suggests finding a merchant in a small specialty store who knows olive oils. ``After that, rely on your palate.''

Keep in mind that when buying any expensive, well-crafted olive oil, it is a condiment, not a cooking agent, she adds.

``Right now, there's an olive oil glut in Italy,'' Jordan says, with a tone of optimism. ``So, we may see some fantastic olive oils making their way to the US.''

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