by Cynthia Gallo-Casey.
Our love affair with olive oil began in 1999 when I accompanied my husband Rick on his first trip to Italy. Together we sauntered off to Tuscany, our first solo vacation since the birth of our daughter one year prior. There is a reason why so many people visit Tuscany. The scenery is stunning, the food extraordinary. For ten glorious days, we were mesmerized by the variety in landscape and scenery. From scenic beaches along the coast, rolling mountains, cypress trees that lined the roadways, vineyards around every corner, and the vast hills splattered with olive groves, Tuscany is a visual treat.
Prior to that trip, we believed all olive oil was created equal! However, a visit to a Tuscan olive grove dramatically altered our perspective and our relationship with olive oil forever! We were intrigued by the way extra virgin olive oil, a staple on every table, was a source of pride and joy to the Tuscans. This spicy, intense, green extra virgin olive oil did not at all resemble the oil we would often buy at the grocery store at home. Why not? The first reason is that the Tuscan oil we were introduced to was produced from specific olive varietals, harvested early, and pressed immediately to preserve the intense flavors and aromas. Just a drizzle would change our taste buds forever and have them singing.
Our introduction to the world of olive oil began in a small village where we learned how the oil is extracted from olives and the importance of various factors on the production of olive oil. Factors such as the length of the harvest period, the impact of weather and heat during the processing, cultivation, and the extraction process, involving both traditional and modern techniques were reviewed in great detail. Similar to a wine tasting, we learned about how professionals taste Olive Oil and how we could judge their individual qualities based on certain characteristics, positive or negative, that are present in the oil. We became believers, in the ancient town of Sette Ponti, that good, fresh olive oil is truly the nectar of the Gods. After this trip, we knew that we could never go back to consuming supermarket olive oil. In 2010 we opened The Roman Table, a retail store specializing in gourmet extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar and our life pursuit became, in part, to pursuing the holy grail of olive oil.
In the recent years, olive oil has crept into the food pages of newspapers and magazines around the world. It began to replace butter, the staple of good cooks and it seemed to suddenly welcome guests to restaurants in little dishes next to the bread. It has become clear that there is an olive oil culture evolving and unfolding before us. There continue to be many questions and controversies surrounding this golden nectar: Is it a good fat or a bad fat? Inquiring consumers want to know. In the 1950’s and 60’s, researchers began looking at different types of fats and reported that polyunsaturated fatty acids seemed to reduce serum cholesterol levels and were praised. On the other hand saturated fats, animal fats, were damned. Olive oil, classified as a monounsaturated fat, was considered neutral. The 70’s and 80’s marked huge shifts in fat intake, as health conscious consumers switched from butter to margarine and used polyunsaturated vegetable oils in cooking. By the end of the 1980’s we were told to use polyunsaturated fats in small quantities, to continue to avoid dangerous saturated fats and to value monounsaturated fats as found in olive oil. In fact, olive oil emerged as a hero to our health story mainly because of the natural antioxidants inherent to its chemical makeup.
While we continue to unravel all of the conflicting messages about the healthiest diet to follow, it seems certain that olive oil will continue to play an important role in the way we cook and eat. Every day I am questioned by friends, family, and customers about which oil to buy, or when to use what kind of oil, as it is easy to be overwhelmed by the choices available. How do you know which oil is best? Which one should you choose for salads, for sautéing, for dipping? If we can choose wines based on simple ideas about flavor, it seems reasonable that we can apply a similar framework to olive oil. This is the essence of the discussion we shall have. We hope you will join in the discussion.
Cynthia Gallo-Casey is the proprietress of The Roman Table in Scituate Harbor. She is a food enthusiast, blogger, and self proclaimed dishaholic. She is always looking for the holy grail of Olive Oil.