EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Olive oil's use in so many dishes and its mounting health benefits make it a must in home pantries, with many households stocking two or more kinds. And while it’s now possible to get good olive oil from places as far flung as New Zealand and Uruguay, olive oils from Italy's Tuscany region remain the ones by which all others are measured.
Classic Tuscan oils have "an archetypal richness”, weight, intensity and palate persistence that other oils don't have." These oils have "a green flavor” variously described as artichoke, green apple and grassy, like Sauvignon Blanc. Other oils tend to be rounder or nuttier."
In addition, Tuscan oils have a “peppery finish” that can sometimes be overpowering to the uninitiated.
There is also a cachet about Tuscan oils, which is one reason why well-regarded wine estates such as Castello Di Brolio, Fontodi, Castello Di Ama, make them, even though they yield little profit.
What makes Tuscan oils the liquid gold standard? It's not only the olive varieties. Most oils are blends primarily of Frantoio and Moraiolo olives along with Leccino, Pendolino and smaller amounts of several others. Frantoio is highly aromatic and fruity, with an intense color. Moraiolo provides grassiness and pleasant bitterness. But their main attribute is yield. Unlike wine quality, olive oil quality is not adversely affected by high yields.
The main factors of its uniqueness are the terroir and what the grower does with the crop."
Almost as important as terroir is when and how the olives are picked and processed. Unlike many fruits (including other olives), which are picked at the point of perfect ripeness, Tuscan olives are handpicked at the point of perfect underripeness. At the critical juncture the fruit is still green but has the optimum levels of phenols and antioxidants. Phenols provide flavor and aromatics; favorable antioxidant levels promote healthfulness !
IGP standards for olive oil are less stringent than those of the DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, which is comparable to wine's DOC). In Chianti Classico and Terre di Siena, for example, extra virgin oil (the highest category) can have no more than .5 percent oleic acid for the DOP, .6 percent for the IGP. Under the DOP, harvested olives must be processed at no more than 82.4° F for "cold-pressed" oil and within 24 hours to prevent eventual formation of molds and micro-oxidations that would hamper the quality of the oil. While there is no requirement, many top oils are bottled without filtration.
Light, air and heat are enemies of olive oil, so it should be kept well-sealed under wine cellar conditions.
Cooking tends to mute the flavor that sets good oil apart. Unless you can afford it, use the best oils only as a condiment to finished dishes or in cold preparations. Try it on pizza just out of the oven, over grilled fish or poultry or brushed on roasted meats. Great olive oil drizzled over vegetables such as grilled asparagus or steamed spinach is sensational. So too over perfectly ripe local tomatoes, especially when paired with fresh mozzarella and basil. On boiled beans (zolfini and cannellini varieties), on ribollita (a typical Tuscan bread - cannelini beans – black cabbage and vegetables soup) or on a toasted slice of Tuscan bread previously rubbed with raw garlic (fettunta)it is simply to die for !
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