It’s 8 AM, and cold in the Meatpacking District. The grand dining room of Del Posto is empty, save for a guy emptying the trash behind the bar. Sunshine lavishly streams into the windows, casting its bright beams onto the shiniest of tile.
In the private dining room in back, the lights are super-dimmed, the better to see the projector. The twenty studious students of the first ever New York Olive Oil Tasting Course huddle over little cups of monocultivar (that’s olive oil lingo for single-variety) olive oils: Hojiblanca, Tonda Iblea, Rossellino. We swirl the oil in our palms to warm the olive juice and better release its organoleptic goodness. We sniff, then slurp. On the screen are scientific-looking charts of their flavor components—walnut shell, green banana, artichoke, olive leaf.
I met Nicholas Coleman at the first New York International Olive Oil Competition last year (mark your calendars: NYIOCC 2 is at the International Culinary Center, in SoHo, on April 8). He was the youngest member of the NYIOOC judging panel. He showed me his custom-carved guitar, made from olive wood. Nicholas teaches olive oil classes at Eataly; he’s working on an olive oil book; he’s an ebullient preacher for the emerging cult of olive oil. Nicholas emailed me about The Olive Oil Tasting Course, which he helped to organize with Kathryn Tomajan. They met in Italy, tasting olive oil. How else?
Last week 20 olive oil people left their olive-centric lives and parted with nearly $2000 to get schooled by instructors from Italy’s National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters (ONAOO), the guys (all the members I met were guys) who helped Kathryn and Nicholas become fluent in the language of olive oil in Imperia, Italy, on the Mediterranean coast. They are serious and as deeply knowledgeable about olive oil as sommeliers are about wine.
My classmates included Greg Henny, a childhood friend of Nicholas and an olive oil harvester at Bella Vista Ranch, the first commercial olive orchard in Central Texas. I had lunch with the charming Maia Hirschbein; she works for California Olive Ranch educating chefs about the beauty and power of olive oil. Other students were olive oil shop owners, a gentleman launching a kosher olive oil business, and a cooking class instructor who teaches Japanese immigrants how to cook with Western ingredients (like olive oil!).
Olive oil is one of the world’s oldest foods. Neolithic people harvested olives; olive oil was prized and essential in the Greek and Roman empires; olive oil references are scattered throughout the Bible. And yet olive oil is shrouded in mystery. We don’t really get it. The New York Times ran an incendiary iconographic about sky-high rates of olive oil adulteration last month…they then made a correction and toned it down.
The thesis remains: EVOO is not always what it’s purported to be. Sometimes, it gets intentionally doctored with veggie oils, or olive oil from a previous year’s harvest, or lesser quality olive oil. But it is also the case that earnest olive oil makers—sometimes with long family legacies of harvesting, milling, and blending—are doing it wrong. The oils are fusty, or woody, or vinegary (all official ‘defects’).
“Even the most famous chefs are almost totally ignorant about olive oil,” says Steven Jenkins, the man behind the olive oil at Fairway Market. The 20 of us, olive oil savvy as we were, didn’t always have the firmest of grasps. The teacher told us: “vanilla, eucalyptus,” but we got “almond, green apple.”
Olive oil is less like wine and more like salt. Only the professional olive oil tasters drink it straight from cups; Steve Jenkins swigs straight from the bottle. The rest of us dip crusty bread into the golden fat, whisk it into vinaigrettes, sear our steaks and roast our veggies in olive juice, drizzle seafood and risotto with its viscous lusciousness.
Like wine, olive oil can be rare, refined, and awe-inspiring. A bottle can evoke rolling Andalusian orchards, growing up, falling in love. Like wine, the terroir, the vintage, and the variety are an important part of the story. And the stories are often good ones: the girl who grew up in Crete with generations and generations of olive oil crafters before her, or the guy who left his cubicle to witness the heady crush of the still-green early harvest oils.
Brooks Headley, the James Beard award-winning Executive Pastry Chef of Del Posto de-pitted dried dates with needle-nose pliers, stuffed them with labne, roasted them with plenty of good olive oil, and finished the sweet discs with more fragrant oil and a sprinkle of flaky maldon. “I use a lot of olive oil, almost in an abusive way,” he told the class. “Using olive oil in desserts isn’t shocking or weird. It just works.”
Fisherman and big deal Chef Dave Pasternack of Esca told the class, “Raw fish is the best way to taste olive oil.” He broke out some fluke; and topped buttery Spanish mackerel with sea beans and a mess of Ligurian olive oil. “Butter is a thing of the past.” With my fork and the tender fish, I scooped up all the golden-green elixir I could. It tasted like sunshine, peppery, but opulently fatty. Maybe he was right.
Good olive oil turns everything to gold. Take some home with you. Steven or Nicholas can help you pick out a worthy bottle. So can I. You probably won’t turn on some sexy music and break out a bottle of olive oil. But perhaps you’ll dip buttery bread into a big bowl of it. Perhaps you’ll adorn your pasta or your gazpacho. You’ll make an aioli, or you’ll put a bottle on the table and use it promiscuously, like a ketchup that’s so much more lovely, tasty, and lyrical. And then your day will be a bit better, and maybe even your life. Promise.