Olive & Oil 03/02/2014

Why should Americans buy premier Italian olive oil?

According to the author of the book Extra Virginity: "the great oils of Italy are, to paraphrase Lévy-Strauss, not just good to eat, but also good to think." Artisanal Italian oil-makers interpret their olives in unique ways

Americans need top-quality Italian olive oil for many of the same reasons that they need, and love, Italy.

Starting with variety: stretching from the Alps almost to Africa, the Italian boot harbors thousands of different microclimates and landscapes, where some 500 different olive cultivars grow: raw materials for countless distinctive oils.
From this variety comes artistry: artisanal Italian oil-makers interpret their olives in unique ways, using hyper-modern milling technology and age-old traditions.
Their artistry yields complexity: the best Italian oils contain mysterious and endlessly fascinating aromas, flavors and mouthfeel, a subtle point and counterpoint of bitter and pepper. All of which, in turn, signals health: flavorful Italian cultivars like coratina, moraiolo and frantoio, when properly harvested and crushed, contain some of the highest levels of phenols and other health-promoting substances of any olive oils on earth.

Perhaps best of all, these inspirational essences are part of a bigger package called la cucina italiana, each an active ingredient in a range of local culinary specialties.
So Taggiasca oil from Liguria, where I live, is the heart and soul of pesto, just as a big-bodied Moraiolo from Umbria brings a zuppa frantoiana (harvest soup with black cabbage) to life, and a zippy Tuscan Leccino adds the perfect balance to branzino al sale (salted seabass). Many oils are delicious on farm-fresh vegetables (my favorites include -Grignano and Reccioppella), and some are even good on fruit – as I learned one hot summer midnight in Ragusa Ibla, a hilltop town in southeastern Sicily, where I first tried blood orange and peperoncino salad flooded with tonda iblea oil.

In fact, enjoying a range of Italian oils, each linked a memorable chunk of Italian territory, is a bit like a long trip through the Italian countryside.
Olive oils become distinct passages into Italy’s lovely labyrinth.

di Tom Mueller