I’m big enough to admit it, I’ve been one of those pretentious olive oil buffoons before. I’ve sniffed at a little plastic cup full of Tuscan extra virgin oil as though it were a Baccarat glass full of Château Mouton Rothschild. Oh yes, a hint of pepper and grass, but redolent of the real fruit, wouldn’t you say? Ecchh, it gives me shivers just thinking about it.
The truly embarrassing part about that time of my life is that deep down I always knew it was a lie. I never liked those harsh back-of-the-throat flavors that a lot of those Tuscan (or Tuscan-style) oils are so famous for. Nor did I ever like “greenness”or bitterness in an oil. Sure, I respect that oils with those characteristics have become important components in some types of Italian cooking, but as stand-alones I simple can’t deal with them. So at the risk of running counter to what’s become one of the über-dictums of modern foodism, I will declare here and now: I don’t like Tuscan olive oils. I don’t like Tuscan oils from Tuscany, I don’t like Tuscan-ish imitations from California. I don’t like olive oils from places near Tuscany. In fact, I don’t much care for Italian olive oil in general.
There. I said it and I’m free. I can get on with the rest of my life.
But it bears asking, what is it that makes different olive oils taste the way they do? The answer is a number of factors: the type of olives, the area where they’re grown, but probably the biggest is the stage of ripeness at which the olives are harvested. Press oil from underripe olives and the result is harsh, grassy oil. Press oil from ripe olives and you get smooth buttery oil (the kind I like).
So then if waiting a little longer produces a rounder, smoother tasting oil, why would anyone press olives before they’re completely ripe? The answer is that in many places in Italy, they have to. It’s the weather, you see. Tuscany is prone to early frosts in the fall, so they harvest their fruit early to protect their crop. This yields the characteristic harshness, but no matter, that’s what real olive oil is supposed to taste like. Just ask any Tuscan olive grower!
So really what we have is an artificially created aesthetic, not unlike the aesthetics that dominate bourbon production and consumption here in Kentucky. On the one hand you have “city” or “sippin'” whiskeys, bourbons with a smooth and refined character that wealthier folks in Louisville and Lexington tend to like. On the other there are “hill” or “country” whiskeys that kick like a five-legged mule. Both can be extremely expensive, very high quality, full of complexity and character. In fact it’s very possible to possess (and I do) a bottle of each with identical flavor profiles…except one will caress you the way a mother strokes a baby, and the other will cold-cock you through the bathroom door. A case can be made for either as to which is the most “authentic”, though in the end it simply comes down to the style you prefer (more often than not I like the kick myself).
It’s the same with olive oil: what’s your style? Me I’ll take the late-harvested Greek stuff any day of the week. In addition to being silken and luxurious, perfect for cake making (and a lot of other things), it’s also a heck of a lot cheaper, less than half the cost of a comparable-quality Italian. Spanish is very good too, though not as cheap (though I understand a friend of mine may soon start importing it, so I may be switching soon). But don’t be afraid to experiment where olive oil is concerned, because that Tuscan Emperor, well, he simply has no clothes.