Excavating Green Gold (a post by Josh)
July 11, 2009
Here, as promised yesterday, is a listing of my top ten. Top ten loves in the oil category. Mainly: olive oil and truffle oil. There’s much to say and even more memories, but here is a smattering of oil loves.
I have get down to the basics before I go and start telling you about the slight variances that I have fallen in love with. So, here it is to me: olive oil. This stuff (as one sign in Florence, Italy once read) is Green Gold. Wait, green? Yup, most of the good olive oils in Italy, Spain, Greece, France, and New Zealand all have a slight green tint to the oil. This generally means you should get ready for a slight bite. It’s not just food lubrication as most Americans see olive oil, but it’s a flavor unto itself. Wait, let me back up. Olive oil is one of my most favorit-est things because it is universal in the cooking world.
(Notice, I did not say baking. Almost never use olive oil in your baking dishes; it will give that desired sweet a strange savory flavor. Especially if the dish calls for a pinch of salt, which most baked goods do).
It is called green gold because one: it is green, and two: because it flavors most dishes in the Mediterranean repertoire. It’s silky, heavy, robust and compliments garlic, salt, pepper and just about any other savory spice you throw at it. Too much, and your food is greasy, too little and the garlic is burning in a dry pan. Olive oil is something I thought I knew before traveling outside of the US, and something I fell in love with when I got outside of the US borders. Here are a few of my favorite oils I’ve met, taken out for dinner and back to my place for later.
Tuscan Bread and Olive Oil
My first introduction to Mediterranean olive oil was the first day of my semester in Italy. After a long flight from New York to Rome to Florence, followed by a taxi cab ride that weaved in and out of Florentine traffic, I found myself standing outside of my new apartment. It sat right on the corner, near the Ponte Alla Grazie, overlooking the Arno river. Now if you don’t know where that is, pull up maps.google.com, type in Florence, Italy, search for the Ponte Vecchio, and look one bridge to the left. That’s where I lived. After I climbed the two flights of stairs, met my new flat-mates, and unloaded my suitcase, we all bounced our way down to the nearest restaurant. We wanted to get something truly Italian. Well, that’s hard to find in a touristy downtown like Florence boasts, but we did manage to find something without a picture menu – a plus.
What I remember most about this place, though, was the compulsory bread and oil before the meal. Tuscan bread has no salt in it due to an age old tradition. I could explain, but let’s keep rolling. Due to the bland taste, oil and salt is provided. Pour the greenish oil onto a plate, add some salt to heighten the oil’s olivey bite, and soak a piece of white Tuscan bread in it. Spinach dip from Applebee’s has nothing on that.
The Tasting Tent
Numbers three, four, and five of my favorite oils all pour out of an olive oil tasting. Please, allow me to explain. If you go back to that map, and find my building, you will also see that Piazza de Santa Croce is very close to where I once lived. So close, that I passed through it every day, either on my way to market or class or on a walk or to gaze up at the beauty that was Santa Croce. Either way, I saw it a lot. Enough to know when something was a little askew about the place. Like that one time when a white rectangle tent popped up overnight in the right hand corner of the piazza. My friends didn’t give it a second glance, since they thought it was some art exhibit or something. I wanted to go in and see what art it was. I dragged my friend, Mags, into the tent one evening during a routine walk and found not art, but about fifteen artisans with tables. Each table had different oils from the Tuscan area, and you could taste each one to find your favorite. I found three favorites, after at least three tastings of each.
Here’s how it all went down: You would go up to a table, “Ciao, como sta? Posso assagare un po?”
“Si, claro. Questa e un tipo fuerte.”
No one spoke English here. This wasn’t tourist in the least. You would then take a small scrap of bread, dip it in the oil and savor. After a dizzying hour in the tasting tent, I came out with at least seven bottles of oil. One was light with a olive background, one was biting, bitter and heavy. The last was full – probably because the olives they picked were a mix of unripe and ripe. Either way, I fell in love in that tent. I didn’t want to leave.
Truffle oil really is a misnomer since it isn’t the oil of a truffle, rather olive oil infused with truffles (be they slices, whole truffles or the smallest percentage of oil from the truffle). I don’t really care though. They could call it truffle poop and I’d still buy it, smell it, and tap a few drops into my dinner.
Let’s break this down. Truffles, like fungi, are generally not farmed, but found. Found by hogs or dogs. Hogs have a better nose for them, but are harder to train. Either one you use, when you find one, hold onto it because truffles are worth serious money. One thousand dollars per pound, I’ve seen before, and I’m sure the price can get even higher. But what I found in the central market of Florence was truffle oil. A small four ounce bottle of olive oil infused with truffles. The best savory marriage I’ve ever seen. And the cost? Well in America that would run about twenty five dollars. In Florence it was five euro. I stocked up.
It’s hard to describe the smell of truffle oil or the reaction my body has to it. I’ve heard it described as “eating sex and earth at the same time.”
I’ll buy that. I don’t know how, but I will. The musty smell, the robust smell, the unassuming, low-lying taste that billows out on your palate. Well, I know I’m not doing this justice, so come find me one day when I’m making a carrot soup with truffle oil.
New Zealand Oil
Hopping right back into olive oil, I couldn’t leave out my oil experience in New Zealand. Last summer I flew to New Zealand for six weeks to tramp around, hike some glaciers and work on some organic farms. The Organization I went through was WWOOF, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms. I spent some time on a dairy farm, organic trade post, sub-tropical fruit farm, and an olive grove/vineyard. The olive grove was my last farm and I really did save the best for last.
We (two friends and I) showed up to find acres of vineyards and about one hundred olive trees in the farm’s front yard. Inside, the house was gorgeous – new, modern, farm-house with a gourmet kitchen. This kitchen was outfitted with everything, including their own olive oil. Tasting it, with the green gold bite, I knew I wanted to help make this, somehow. Two days into the stay, they told us that they needed all ninety-seven trees picked and ready in three days. Now, that’s a lot of trees to pick. How exactly do you pick an olive tree? You rake the olives out of the limbs and let them fall onto a red net below. It’s a lot of fun, until you get to tree forty-eight. We got it done, though. And for our good work, we went with the owners to the oil press.
The oil? As good as any I had in Italy.
Olive Oil Festival
Numbers eight nine and ten all come from my favorite experience, maybe from all of Italy: the olive oil festival. This is a festival to celebrate the coming of the new year’s oil. Late in October, these festivals happen all over, but my family (who was visiting at the time) and I made it to a small Tuscan hillside town for this special event. After a car ride for the strong-stomached, we piled out of the car and onto the too-small-to-drive-through streets filled with vendors of crafts, bread, conversation, glee, and most of all: oil.
In almost every storefront, window, or garage sat a table with bread chunks, a bowl full of oil, and a salt shaker off to the side. We sampled up and down the streets and found our final dining place for lunch. Right outside of a garage, in the middle of the street, we sat down at a couple of picnic tables to dine on sausages, pastas, breads, table wines, and oils. The town was celebrating the oil new year, and what a celebration it was. After lunch, we strode down to a family friend’s oil press, took the tour and sampled his oil. There was no bread here. Instead, the man treated oil like wine: in a small paper cup he poured about a quarter of an ounce and told us to warm up the oil slightly. Then, sip it. You should get a first taste, second, and after taste. And I did. First, bitter. Second, smooth. After, refreshing. This oil was amazing, and I left with a small bottle of it, unlabled since he’d pressed the oil just hours ago.
These oils remind me not only of culinary beauty or gastronomical adventures, but of good time spent wandering the unknown streets of Tuscany and trying to hold onto the short days in New Zealand, and that’s what a good oil should do. Not just lubricate your meal, but make the meal itself.