Slippery ground: How to choose olive oil?
It was back in the late 1990’s. I was developing some dishes for the new Mediterranean menu of Armada Hotel, and we were testing my easy-peasy but sure-fire recipes. The recipes were as simple as they could be, so the key to success would be to use the best ingredients as possible. I was particularly enthusiastic of a raw vegan pasta sauce I created for my daughter to encourage her to eat healthier. Every time I made the sauce, it was a winner. Just throw in a blender two big red sweet peppers with two or three whole tomatoes without bothering to peel or chop, together with a clove or two of garlic and a generous pour of good olive oil, at least half a cup or even more, season it with a teaspoon each of salt and sugar, whizz until smooth, and voila… the sauce would be ready even before the pasta was boiled.
When testing the recipe at the hotel kitchen, I asked for a good extra virgin olive oil. The chef held me a Spanish one, saying that it was left by a Spanish chef that visited the hotel recently. A whiff at the bottle made me jump back. God it was strong! I was a bit skeptic, but used it nevertheless. The result was far from what I was used to making at home. It was heavy, too powerful, too oily I must say, definitely not fit for the refreshing summer pasta I was trying to achieve. The olive oil must have been a late-harvest one, and the olive variety was apparently one with a robust taste profile. It could be good for other purposes, but definitely not for the recipe I proudly named “Ulya Sos,” after my daughter’s name. Since that experience, I understood that when working with olive oil, it is always slippery ground. You need to know your oil well and choose accordingly.
I am convinced that each dish requires its own olive oil. A chef needs a palette of several olive oils, pretty much like a painter playing with colors. Elvan Uysal Bottoni, a leading olive oil expert and judge based in Rome, says that for a perfect match, the oil and the ingredients used in a dish must bear similar taste profiles and characters. In that way flavors enhance each other and accentuate the taste of the final plate. It is pretty much like wine and food pairing. Some olive oils are pungent and peppery, some are delicate and fine, some have grassy and fruity aromas, and some have earthy and nutty notes. In reality, every olive oil has different taste nuances and astonishingly diverse aroma profiles. The diversity is enormous in the olive oil world, so just like in the wine world, the chef must be able to understand better the olive, just like knowing the grape, and be able to pick the right olive oil for the right dish and right cooking method. It is just too simplistic to call for EVOO for a recipe; we now need more definitive definitions on which olive oil to choose.
The terroir, the climate, the soil and the olive variety give the oil its distinctive aroma. Another crucial factor is the timing of the harvest. Earlier harvests give more fruity, grassy, fresh yet pungent aromas, late harvest give more oily, rich, fuller taste profile. I remember, in the early years of the Ayvalık Olive Harvest Festival, an old-school producer loathed the rise of the early-harvest fad, complaining without chewing his words: “This is not even oil, it is fruit juice!”
It is true that aromas change drastically according to the harvest time. From the same olive groove, one gets different aromas according to the picking time. Before the early harvest fad, the harvest time used to be between mid-December and mid-January. This was the norm in the old times, of course later the harvest, better the oil yield was.
Aylin Yazıcıoğlu, former formidable chef of Nicole Restaurant, says she considers olive oil just like a seasoning like salt & pepper. “Using olive oil in cooking is essential for my cooking, but I also see it as a final touch to the plate like adding a condiment or sauce,” she adds. Not every olive oil suits every food. For Yazıcıoğlu, variety is what counts most. She continues, “I prefer the oil from Menteşe SOM, especially Dilmit variety for cooking most of my dishes, but I make the final drizzle of Memecik variety oil from the same region. Chickpeas are enhanced when dressed with Nova Vera Trilye, and my cucumber gazpacho is elevated to another level by a touch of Hermus with its deep green aromas. Zetay has become our welcome dipping oil for bread. The more variety of olive oils I have in my kitchen, the better.”
Another chef, Pınar Taşdemir of Araka Restaurant, recently demonstrated a full dinner using Asiltane olive oils from Gömeç, close to Ayvalık. She explained: “If I’m preparing a raw plate, or a salad, I opt for early harvest cold pressed ones, like the sea bass ceviche. When I make a celeriac confit, I use two different oils, for cooking I use cold pressed late harvest, for the final dressing I apply the early harvest cold pressed one. I never use early harvest if I’m applying heat, as I will be losing the phenolic qualities.”
As chefs frankly express their choices, it is not even which oil olive to choose, even how and at which stage of cooking you use it matters. It is not easy to master how to use olive oil, but once you do so, it opens a whole new world in your cooking. Time to elaborate the pantry and reserve more place to a plethora of olive oils on your kitchen counter.
Fork of the Week: The olive oil scene in Turkey is getting more and more exciting every single year. Recently six regional olive oil producers joined forces and created a platform called Anatolian Olive Oils. This is a promising collaboration giving a new dimension to understand local olive varieties better. Adalı Efe from Burhaniye, Balıkesir with Edremit type olives; Elea from Altınözü, Hatay, with Halhalı, Saurani, Karamani and Hashebi varieties; Gıda Ormanı from Seferihisar, İzmir with Erkence variety; Orfion from Ayvalık, Balıkesir with Edremit variety; Tarhala from Darkale/Soma, Manisa with Edremit variety; Tayga from Bayındır, İzmir with Memecik variety. Apart from these six producers note down three other exciting producers I’ve recently discovered. Menteşe SOM from Milas, Muğla; Asiltane from Gömeç, Balıkesir; and Hermus having a range including Ayvalık, Trilye and Arbequina varieties. They all have exquisite oils, all deserving a place on your rack of fine olive oils.