by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
Last May during our visit to Italy we had the opportunity to spend half a day visiting Castello del Trebbio in Tuscany. Castello del Trebbio was built in the 12th century. It is surrounded by a 350 hectare estate (54 hectares of vineyards and 10,000 olive trees) and is bordered by native forest. Once owned by the Pazzi family, it was the scene of the attempted murder of the Medici brothers in 1478. The current family bought the estate in 1968 and have restored it to its original architecture. The family actually lives in the castle.
Our very engaging tour guide, Alberto, married into the family, and during lunch instructed us in wine tasting and olive oils. The family-run estate offers high quality products such as wine, extra virgin olive oil and pure saffron as well as several activities such as accommodations in their farm houses. Alberto impressed upon us the importance of enjoying good wine and olive oil; of course, he reminded us that the best wines and oils only come from Italy. We made it a daily practice to follow his advice, plus every day around three, stopping at a local gelato shop. When you visit Italy I recommend you visit or even stay at the Castle.
In preparing this article I learned that studies continue to come out with the latest health benefits of olive oil. Olive oil is the basis of the Mediterranean diet. Studies show that replacing butter and less healthy fats with olive oil can possibly help in the prevention of a number of diseases, and according to Alberto in Italy, is the secret for a long and good life. La Dolce Vita!
Jay’s 10 facts about olive oil
- What is olive oil? My trusted source of all knowledge, “Wikipedia,” informs me that olive oil is a “fat obtained from the olive-a traditional tree crop from the Mediterranean Basin.” It is the oily juice, minus the water also contained within the fruit. It may have been filtered, but not refined. It varies enormously in aroma, and flavor from bottle to bottle, producer to producer. I also learned that the Egyptians before 200 BC imported olive oil from Crete, Syriaand Canaan and it was an important item of commerce and wealth. Besides food, olive oil has been used for religious rituals, medicines, as a fuel, in soap-making, and skin care. Today Spain produces 44 percent, Italy 22 percent and Greece 12 percent. The majority of the olive oil sold in the United States comes from Italy, Spain and Greece. An interesting fact was that Greece consumes over 24 liters per person per year and only (yes it is increasing) .7 liters in the United States.
- Buying olive oil –Since acquiring this new knowledge I now realize that selecting which olive oil to purchase is not easy. My research shows there are over 700 different kinds of olive oils from throughout the world. Multiple factors including soil type and weather patterns affect the taste and quality of the final product. Extra virgin oil is considered by many to be the best for consumption. It has gone through a process of being pressed or spun using a centrifuge without the use of heat or other chemicals. Other olive oils may lack the fruity, spicy complexity of the fine virgin oil.
- Which olive oil? Of course Alberto would tell you to purchase only those from Italy and preferably his. I suggest trying different oils. Similar to wine, olive oils will vary in taste and texture. Be open to trying different varieties from different regions.
- How will you be using your olive oil? Different ones are better suited for different purposes. Yes extra virgin is considered the best and if looking for an oil for your salad dressings, finishing dishes, or with fresh baked bread then you will want to select it. If you are looking for an oil to use with general cooking then possibly choose a lower grade. There is some controversy over using olive oil for frying. My research shows that high quality olive oil remains stable up to 365-400 degrees F. As extra virgin oil can be expensive, you need lots to fry, and its taste is lost in the frying process, you may want to use an alternative.
- Read the label. The International Olive oil Council (IOC) sets the standards. We have all read about oils being labeled as extra virgin and in reality not so. It’s important to do your homework. Very important and you will find on better olive oils is the harvest date. Olive oil unlike wine does not improve with age. It is a very perishable product and will deteriorate within a few months of harvest. Look for a date 18 to 24 months of harvest. If the label has a “best by” date, be leery for it may have been bottled more than a year before. Even if the label states that the oil is from Italy, there may be oils from other countries mixed in. Important to read the small print.
- What is best-bottle or tin? Because olive oil does degrade quickly and even quicker when exposed to heat or light many of the better olive oils are packaged in a dark bottle or tin. Remember to store your olive oil in a cool dark spot and not next to the hot stove.
- Cold or second pressed? In truth when you see “first cold pressed” on a label it is pretty meaningless and a marketing ploy. Long ago producing olive oil was a slow and dirty process and the best olive oil only came from the first pressing of olives. To be considered extra virgin the oil must be pressed at a temperature not above 85 degrees. My research says there is no longer hot pressing or second pressing.
- Oil snobbery! I have been accused by my wife Carol of being a wine snob and now she is concerned the same may happen with olive oils. My retort is that like good wines the better extra virgin olive oils may cost a lot. That is because premium olive oils are hand harvested and pressed within hours of picking and processed locally if not at the site. Better oils will give the acid content –aim for no more than .8 percent. (That’s less than 1 percent.) Look for endorsements or certifications from IOC, DOP, DOC, and in the United States the California Olive Oil Council.
- Sampling olive oils. As the flavor can vary so much, try and sample if possible. Don’t base your choice on just the color. Just because the color is darker does not indicate it is less pure. The color is primarily a result of the particular olive variety and time when harvested. Often if harvested early in the season (in Italy normally October-December) the oil will tend to be greener in color and maybe more peppery in taste. Oils picked later in the season tend to be more buttery and golden in color.
- Where to purchase. Part of the fun of enjoying wine is trying new varieties/grapes. The same is true of olive oils. Incredibly Delicious in Springfield has an olive oil tasting the second Saturday of the month, and owner Patrick tells me he will stock up for the upcoming Oct. 10 tasting. Of course, while there enjoy breakfast and take home a fresh, out-of-the-oven baguette (complimentary with olive oil purchase) or other scrumptious goodies. Other local sources are the Corkscrew (along with great selection of Italian wines and cheese), Food Fantasies and straight from the Hill in St. Louis is Boccardi’s Italian Imports and Restaurant located on Cockrell Lane. The very hospitable owner Maria will make you feel at home and serve you true Italian dishes.
“A good wine lasts one dinner: a good olive oil will last many.” Italian Proverb
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, Baking/Pastry and Value-Added Local Food, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.