I’ve just been tasting new olive oil, pressed less than a week ago at a friend’s mill north of Florence. Made from a combination of two typical Tuscan varieties, frantoio and leccino, it has the distinctive grassy aroma and taste of fresh raw artichokes. When you slurp it directly from a spoon as I love to do, it seems to separate into its individual components, layers of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency, that blend together as the oil settles down. Many of my most tradition-minded Tuscan neighbors won’t use new oil until March or April, claiming it’s too raw, too aggressive at this stage, but I love it, slurped directly from a spoon or poured generously over a crust of toasted bread rubbed lightly with a cut clove of garlic and sprinkled with coarse sea salt.
Salt, says my friend Bill Briwa, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, helps to counteract the bitterness in oil. At a recent olive oil conference in Verona, Italy, he offered a taste of what Tuscans call tagliata, a thick steak, grilled, sliced across the grain, and garnished with sea salt and a good dollop of extra virgin, nothing more. It was a stupendous combination.
Handle with care: How olive oil goes rancid
I wish more Americans had the chance to sample new oil like this. It would give us a better understanding of and appreciation for extra virgin olive oil. I’m often struck by the prevalence of rancid olive oil in American restaurants, even very high-end restaurants that otherwise emphasize quality ingredients. Too often, that little puddle of oil proudly presented with the bread is unmistakably rancid. It may have started out as an oil fully as delicious as the one I’ve described above, but bad handling, at a series of points, from the time it leaves the producer’s tender care until the oil arrives in the user’s kitchen, have corrupted a glorious product.
Often it isn’t willful fraud that’s behind the deterioration so much as sheer ignorance. A chef, for instance, might keep her best oil, for ease of service, in glass jugs in a hot kitchen. Heat and light are sworn enemies of oil, which should be kept in a cool, dark place, preferably in a metal container that light can’t penetrate. Another chef might have her oil set out on the tables in small glass cruets that are topped up every day with fresh oil; eventually, the oil remaining in the cruet goes rancid and each top-up is contaminated by the rancid oil already in the jug. At Market Hall Foods in Oakland, Calif., the oils that are put out for customer sampling each day are gathered up at night and either discarded or sent to the kitchen for immediate use. This is admirable and shows a real understanding of the fragility of extra virgin olive oil.
But what, you might ask, is rancid? What does it taste like? It’s actually hard to describe, but all too easy to sample. Walnuts, for instance, because they’re full of oil (and good-for-you oil, too), go rancid very quickly. If you come across a jar of walnuts forgotten in the back of a pantry shelf, open it and take a good deep sniff — that’s rancid. Whole wheat flour, for the same reason — oil in the germ of the wheat — will rancidify quite quickly, too, while regular flour, with the germ removed before milling, will remain stable much longer. Rancid food, apart from its nasty flavor (reminiscent of cat’s pee, some say), is not good for you; too much of it can be outright damaging to your health. Which is why cooking authorities recommend refrigerating or freezing walnuts, whole wheat flour and similar ingredients if you must keep them for a couple of months.
Where to store olive oil: pantry or refrigerator?
Should extra virgin olive oil be refrigerated? It’s a question I’m often asked and I don’t have a hard-and-fast answer. Typically, if you can keep oil in a cool pantry or even a cellar, it will be fine for up to two years from harvest; well-kept oil may lose its bright flavors, but it won’t spoil. After all, there was no refrigeration at all in Mediterranean countries until recently and olive oil kept very well in cool, dark places from one year to the next. But if you live in a hot climate, in the southern or southwestern U.S., and you don’t have that ideal cool pantry, then it’s not a bad idea, if there’s room in your refrigerator, to store your fine oil there, only bringing out small quantities for daily use.
Whatever you do with it, however, be generous. Nothing is more exasperating than a salad dressed with two teaspoons of extra virgin — it’s mingy, there’s no other word for it. Speaking of words, I like a word British food writers use when talking about olive oil: “add a glug of extra virgin olive oil,” says Nigel Slater over and over again in his recipes. A glug, indeed — it has a satisfying sound, like the glug the oil itself makes as you pour it with an unstinting hand over that crust of bread, that bean soup, that pasta with tomato sauce. Less is more in some contexts but not when it comes to good fresh olive oil.
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.