Sep 042012

At the beginning of the summer I finished reading Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, a book I began in December when it was published. I took it slowly, reading and re-reading chapters. It was a like a good meal and I wanted to savor it.

I found Extra Virginity intriguing and the treatment of the subject compelling. There was a lot going on in each chapter. I wanted to absorb and analyze as much as possible so I could better understand the world of olive oil production and trade. I’m not saying that Extra Virginity gave me all that insight, but it helped.

If you haven’t read it yet – you must.

This summer my husband, Tom, completed Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, From 9/11 to Abbottabad by CNN National Security Analyst, Peter Bergen. While Tom was reading Manhunt he sent me an email with a link to an article on CNN‘s website featuring an excerpt from the book. The excerpt catalogued some of the things Bergen saw as he walked through the bin Laden compound: Medications, Just for Men hair dye, a chicken coop, a vegetable garden, a bread oven, and “large empty cans of Sasso olive oil.”

I found the olive oil entry the most interesting, not just because it is the brand of olive oil that may have been in the digestive tract of Osama bin Laden at his time of death, or because the author bothered to mentioned it, or that some of the other “finds” when combined with olive oil would make a tasty meal, but because Sasso was also mentioned in the book I had just finished reading.

Here is some of what I know about Sasso olive oil. It is a brand sold by Deoleo, a large food company formerly known as Grupo SOS. Two of Grupo SOS’s brands Bertolli and Carapelli are prominently featured in Extra Virginity as failing chemical and taste evaluation tests. Those tests found that both brands were selling as “Extra Virgin” – olive oils which were either low-quality olive oil or not olive oil at all.

Sasso is mentioned in Extra Virginity as a brand that sold olive oil purchased in bulk from olive oil supplier Domenico Ribatti. Ribatti was identified by European authorities as the ring-leader of a large, multi-national, fake, olive oil scheme featuring hazelnut oil sold as extra virgin olive oil. Ribatti was forced out of business but the taint of olive oil corruption lingers on.

It is interesting to note that Sasso is sold in India and the location where bin Laden was found to be hiding, Abbottabad, is only 20 miles from the border of India. The courier that bin Laden employed to communicate with his cohorts, the same guy who’s slip-up led to finding bin Laden, also picked up supplies needed for the residents of the compound. To communicate with the bin Laden network the courier would turn on his cell phone once he was a good 100 miles from Abbottabad. For years this guy drove great distances in Pakistan, which isn’t very big, trying not to use his cell phone in the same place. I didn’t read the book and forgot to ask my husband if the courier crossed into India, but I would put money down that he did.

As details of the bin Laden killing come to light maybe there will be articles in the future entitled, Antioxidants in olive oil found to destroy terrorism or International killer slips-up in puddle of olive oil.

May the sun shine through your branches.

Feb 232012

Have you kept up with all the news about fake olive oil or low-grade olive oil being passed off as extra virgin? I have and even though I just had my first official taste testing, I do test each bottle I buy. So you’re probably thinking – what do I do if my olive oil doesn’t taste right? TAKE IT BACK TO THE STORE. I do and they always take it back and refund my money.

Like with any food, trial and error is the key to finding and consuming fresh and tasty products. One important thing to remember about olive oil – it is a food and is perishable – fresh is best. It is harvested in late fall and early winter in the Northern Hemisphere and late spring and early summer in the Southern Hemisphere. There are many factors that affect flavor and quality from weather to milling to bottling to storage.

There are many books and articles on olive oil tasting, but for home taste testing I prefer the methods used by Culinary Professional, Deborah Krasner, in her lovely and well-researched book, The Flavors of Olive Oil: A Tasting Guide and Cookbook.

Deborah helps make taste testing simpler and more accessible. She developed her own classifications that focus on the flavors of oil. This is a more useful way of matching oils with foods. Her categories are:

  • Delicate and Mild – Subtle and short-lived, not to be confused with tasteless. Goes well with tender lettuces, fresh peas, mild cheeses.
  • Fruity and Fragrant – Blend of rich tastes and smells of apples and green leafy vegetables. Drizzle on pasta, mixed salads, oranges, dessert cheeses, chicken breasts.
  • Olivey and Peppery – Taste and smell begins as rich olive and finishes in the throat with a zing. Use for roasting meats, in pasta sauces, on breads, on whole grains.
  • Leafy Green and Grassy – Taste and smell of strong herbs. Dress pasta with just oil, garlic, and cheese; strong-flavored salads; garnish for bean soups.

Now that you know what flavors to look for and some of the foods those flavors enhance, follow these tips for holding your own extra virgin olive oil taste test at home.

  • Purchase and assemble the extra virgin olive oils you wish to test. Deborah Krasner suggests you choose oils that are estate-bottled (processed and bottled on the premises where they were grown) from at least four different countries. I recommend picking evoo from several countries around the world, not just Mediterranean. There are so many selections to choose from – be adventurous.
  • Buy a bunch of the 5oz. wax coated paper cups. The kind you find in some folks bathrooms. They are good for testing since they don’t alter the taste and conduct radical temperature changes. Make sure you buy enough so that you do not reuse a cup.
  • Pour about one tablespoon of oil in each cup. Make sure that one tablespoon is sufficient to completely coat your tongue and your throat when swallowed. You must be able to engage taste, touch, and smell with each sample. If you need more oil in your cup, add it.
  • The best time to have an evoo taste test is mid morning. Your senses are sharper at that time of day.
  • Do not eat anything spicy or strongly-flavored for several hours before a taste test and nothing about an hour before. Cleanse your palate with a green/Granny Smith apple and some plain water before beginning.
  • Hold the cup in both your hands to warm to body temperature. Cover the opening with your hands as well to trap the aromas.
  • Put your nose in the cup and smell the aromas.
  • Take a sufficient amount into your mouth to swirl around and coat your tongue.
  • Suck in a little air and swallow.
  • From the time you inhale the first aromas to the time you swallow the oil take note of the flavors, scents, and feel of the oil.
  • Record your findings. If you smell, taste or feel something different than you see listed in any olive tasting guides or glossaries, write it down just like your senses picked it up. Olive oil is produced in more and more places around the world and the sensory guidelines are bound to add new attributes and defects over time.
  • Take a bite of apple and a sip of water and try the next oil.
  • After you have completed the round, do it again, but this time in a different order. You might be surprised at the differences you pick up the second time around.
  • Now that these bottles have been opened, store them in a cool (not cold) dark place. With time the tastes you picked up may change a little or a lot. Save your notes and if you still have some oil left in about six months (hopefully not) conduct another test and you will have some good information on what an oil tastes like as it ages. Some become more mellow and others not so nice.

May the sun shine through your branches.

Jan 012012

Lately I have been munching through several books at one time, including my daily diet of olive-related news articles. Most of the books I am reading are of the business, economics, and crime flavor. One of the books in this “meal” is Tom Mueller’s, Extra Virginity … a book I started the week after it was published and am still savoring.

Sometime last week I began to notice relationships among these books, specifically, relationships between business/criminal actions of the past centuries and business/criminal activities of the present. This morning I woke up with a theory. I went to the sources that gelled my idea to verify my understanding of the passages that lead me to that theory. I verified what I could and modified my thoughts a bit.

Here are the books and the article that stimulated my idea, in the order I read or am reading them:

  1. Elements of Shipping by Alan Edward Branch
  2. Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish-American Gangster by T.J. English
  3. Sovena USA First Ever Lab to be Certified by International Olive Council in United States: Top Olive Oil Importer Becomes Only U.S. Company to Hold Certification published on December 5, 2011 on PR Newswire
  4. Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller also published on December 5, 2011
  5. The New Rules of Marketing & PR: How to Use Social Media, Online Video, Mobile Applications, Blogs, News Releases, and Viral Marketing to Reach Buyers Directly by David Meerman Scott
  6. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

Here is my theory:

The Mediterranean olive oil adulteration business/criminal activity is moving it’s main operations lock, stock, and bulk shipment to the United States.

I’m going to be kind of a jerk here and not explain how I arrived at my theory, instead I am going to provide you with a list of ingredients for this recipe for disaster. After you prepare this recipe tell me if it tastes the way I think it does.

Whisk together 5 books and 1 article. Slowly fold into this mixture 1 cup of boiling politics, 2 tablespoons of consumer ignorance, 1 dollop of soft regulatory environment, 1 loaf of potential-willing market torn into smaller pieces, and several million tons of “extra virgin olive oil”. Bake, sprinkle dish with 1 bag of EU economy crumbles, and serve. Mmmmmmmmm – nasty!

May the sun shine through your branches.

Sep 212011

Today I felt like my life was missing something, and it was. It’s books – real ones, not the Star Trek version, Kindle or Nook. I wasn’t missing just any books or even new books, but the kind you find at the library: old books; much read books; cookbooks by out-of-favor authors; books checked out by school children and copied for book reports; travel books showing barren, sandy beaches that are now covered in high rises; books … So I saddled up the old Cadillac and went to the library.

I do a lot of research and almost all of it is on the internet. I am tired of logging onto the world wide web and finding the same answers to my questions repeated verbatim from website to website. Sister Marie Renee would have called that – plagiarism and sent them to the Principal, Sister Mary James, for a phone call (rotary dial of course) to their parents. Now, plagiarism is old hat and stupid data like the widely-varying smoke point of extra virgin olive oil can freely circle the world dressed as “truth”. Groan!

After renewing my library card and re-acclimating myself to the Dewey Decimal System I combed the shelves for treasures. In Fiction I found some Alexander McCall Smith books I had missed. In 398 I found Folklore and in 292, Classical (Greek & Roman) Religion. In 641 I found Food & Drink and Sophia Loren’s Recipes & Memories a/k/a 641.5945. I took them all for a 28-day visit to Chez Olive Crazy. Thank you Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library.

Here is Mrs. Ponti’s “Penne alla Puttanesca” or “Pasta Quills, Whore Style”. Yup that’s right. As the dear lady explains, it is quick to prepare and indicates vitality and gaiety. Apparently these are whoreish qualities of which many of us are guilty.

Makes 4 servings

1 lb penne
4 anchovy fillets, drained
2 garlic cloves
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp unsalted butter
2 to 3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped
1/2 c pitted black olives, drained, finely chopped
1 tbsp capers, drained
1/4 c Italian parsley, minced

Bring a large pot of water to boil, add a pinch of salt, and drop in the pasta.

In a mortar, use a pestle to pound the anchovies and garlic into a paste. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, then finely chop them. Heat the oil and butter in a pan, add the paste, and sauté for about 1 to 2 minutes over a medium heat. Add the tomatoes, olives, and capers, and cook for 15 minutes.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it and dress it with the sauce. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve.

May the sun shine through your branches.

Jun 162011

Olive Crazy and the young Olives are on vacation, crossing the country headed for California, real olives, and olive oil (wine too). I’ve packed some summer reading – one is an old favorite and the other, I hope with be a new one.

The old favorite is, Under the Tuscan Sun, by former Georgian, Frances Mayes. The book is way better than the movie which, besides fictionalizing the story, doesn’t have the olive tree tending, olive harvesting, pressing, and of course eating parts – the best parts. The descriptions Frances Mayes uses are so vivid I feel like I’m right there with her.

The other book is Carol Drinkwater‘s, The Olive Farm. It is described as, “A Memoir of Life, Love and Olive Oil in the South of France.” I hope it’s good. If it is, I will tackle the rest of her “Olive” stories. By the way, she is also the actress who played Helen, the wife of James Herriot in “All Creatures Great and Small”.  One of my sisters was addicted to that show.

Gotta go read.

May the sun shine through your branches.