Extra virgin olive oil is a wide-ranging designation, too wide ranging, many in the business of producing and marketing high-end olive oil would claim. What makes an oil extra virgin, according to the International Olive Council, the group tasked with regulating the industry, is simply that it has been expressed by mechanical means, has a free acidity of no more than 0.8 percent and a minuscule peroxide content. Plus perfect flavor and no defects.
You might think so. In fact extra virgin olive oils come in many guises. There are a few (a very few) great extra virgins, a quantity of indifferent ones, and, unhappily, far too many downright fraudulent ones. All are available on world markets and, except for the frauds, legitimately so. Many oils that may have started out as extra virgin lose their quality somewhere along the way from producer to end user, almost always because of poor handling en route.
A number of people are sufficiently concerned to try to change this.
The extra virgin confab
Beyond Extra Virgin is the annual conference that brings together olive oil producers, chefs, food writers and just plain lovers of great extra virgin oil, to talk about and experiment with this favorite, much misunderstood, often maligned ingredient. The 2011 conference, which just ended, was organized by the Spanish nonprofit Interprofesional del Aceite de Oliva and sponsored jointly by Associazione Tre-E (a project of the Accademia dei Georgofili in Florence), the Olive Center at the University of California, Davis, and the Culinary Institute of America. The goal? To establish criteria for super-premium olive oil that goes beyond the simple designation of extra virgin. As conference attendees noted over and over at the fifth iteration of BEV V, extra virgin as a definition of quality has become almost meaningless.
Córdoba, one of Spain’s most hauntingly beautiful cities, was an appropriate setting. Al-Andaluz, as Andalucia was once called, was Muslim territory for some seven centuries, part of that time under the Caliphate of Córdoba which brought together Muslims, Christians and Jews in a complex and accomplished society called by Spanish historians “La Convivencia” (“coexistence” is a somewhat inadequate translation). As it happened, Muslim farmers were also responsible for a dramatic increase in Spanish olive plantations and oil production during that time. We know this because most of the Spanish words relating to olive oil — aceite (the oil), almazarat (the mill), aceituna (olive) — come directly from Arabic.
Andalucia’s vast olive groves
Moreover, Córdoba is surrounded by the olive groves of Andalucia, a vast and dazzling spectacle that stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions. It is there that 80 percent of Spanish olive oil originates. Spanish oil production, once on a par with Italy’s, has surged in recent years, and Spain now accounts for a little under half the entire world output.
According to the International Olive Council, Spain is expected to produce a near-record 1.37 million tons of olive oil in 2010/2011; Italy comes in second place with 480,000 tons. So it’s safe to say that this ocean of Andalucian olives is the backdrop for about 40 percent of all the olive oil produced in any given year.
Olive oil and sous vide
Frying with extra virgin olive oil is a no-brainer for the cooks of al-Andaluz. Conference-goers were introduced to a number of different ways of using olive oil in the professional kitchen, from high-falutin’ executions with liquid nitrogen and gels, to downhome-style fried seafood that astonished with the fresh taste of the sea accented by the flavors of outstanding olive oil.
Celia Jimenez, the young chef at Córdoba’s exceptional Bodegas Campos (and winner of two Michelin stars at her former place in Marbella), went directly back to traditions that might well have begun in Arab times, dredging little briny peeled shrimps as well as flamenquines, stuffed rolled veal fillets that looked like fat cigars, in a simple flour coating called harina para freir, or flour for frying. She then shook them in a rectangular sieve to get rid of excess flour. (American cooks, I’m told, can use a combination of garbanzo and all-purpose flours in a 1 to 3 ratio to substitute for the grainy Spanish flour.) Dropped in a vat of oil heated to 180 C (around 360 F), the seafood fried quickly to a crisp, crunchy gold on the outside and a melting tenderness within.
Frozen extra virgin
Dani Garcia, whose Restaurante Calima (two Michelin stars) in Marbella is cool almost to the point of frostbite, went to the other extreme as befits a chef who’s often classed with the likes of Ferran Adrià and Martín Berasategui.
Rather than frying, Garcia, hailed by his peers as a master of that key molecular gastronomy ingredient liquid nitrogen, froze fine extra virgin olive oil, spraying or squirting it into a nitrogen bath to create variously “couscous” and “popcorn,” which he then used to garnish dishes, including his signature (or one of them) “tomato” — made of crushed beets and a satiny red gel, served with a pile of olive oil “couscous.”
Two chefs, one American and the other Greek, created the most extraordinary culinary excitement at the conference. Kyle Connaughton, a visiting instructor from the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in St. Helena, Calif., (and a former head chef for R&D at The Fat Duck in Bray, England), demonstrated a revolutionary technique — low-temperature poaching using small amounts of fine extra virgin olive oil and sous vide pouches. He combined Castillo de Canena’s arbequina extra virgin with a fillet of Mediterranean grouper in a sous vide pouch and poached the fish at 50 C (about 120 F) for 25 minutes.
The result was a remarkable juxtaposition of flavors: the low temperature allowed for the retention of the complex flavors brought about by the oil’s polyphenols — in high heat they may be destroyed or altered. The fish, albeit thoroughly cooked, had a moist density, but without the chewiness of raw fish. Further, Connaughton pointed out, the technique is appealing in its economy — for 200 individual portions of fish he used just a liter of olive oil rather than the five liters he would have needed to poach the fish in a conventional stove-top manner.
Salt baked potato with Greek olive oil
Although this wasn’t a competition, had it been, first prize for simplicity would have gone to Christoforos Peskias, whose new PBox restaurants in Athens are hugely popular. Peskias cut to the chase with a plain salt-baked potato, its dark russeted skin streaked white with salt, its interior soft and crumbling. He broke the potato with a fork and drenched it with Gaea Kritsa olive oil from the island of Crete. And that was it. The heat of the potato brought out the incredibly volatile compounds in the olive oil while the oil’s texture bathed each little crumb of roasted potato with a lush sweetness that seemed almost platonic in its essence.
That particular session of the three-day conference was titled “Is It Still Possible to Taste Excellence?” And the conclusion, based on a combination as simple as sea salt, roasted potato and super-premium olive oil, was a resounding yes.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photos from top:
Andalucian olive groves
Gazpacho drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
Credits: Nancy Harmon Jenkins