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Oil Slick
by Felizia Fiamma
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 6.1

images by Suzi Q. Varin

Choose containers that keep out light: dark glass, ceramic, even metal. With pricey oils, taste before you buy, and look for seal-of-approval initials such as DOP (Italy), DO (Spain) or COOC (California). Keep your oil tightly sealed; store it in a cool, dark place; and use it within two years (some say 18 months) of harvest, or one year after opening. Oh, and that plastic Jug O’ Oil from the C word? Don’t go there. There’s inexpensive, and then there’s swill.

Fruity, peppery, buttery, appley, grassy, herbal, nutty? You’d think you were talking about wine. There’s actually similar flavor chemistry going on in olive oil and wine. Early-harvest olive oils taste greener and more pungent, like an herbaceous sauv blanc. The longer the hang time, the riper the fruit, the smoother the mouthfeel, the mellower the flavors. Late-harvest oils come across more like a full-tilt chard. Both can be great; it’s just a matter of what you like and how you plan to use it. (Uh, you are gonna use it, right? You want to decorate your kitchen counter, buy a bonsai.)

The terms “virgin” and “extra virgin” really are more than just sexy sounding hype: they measure the percentage of harsh-tasting oleic acid in the oil (lower is better), which can translate to quality. “Extra virgin” oils must have less than 1 percent acidity (many clock in below .5 percent) and require as much care in growing and production as boutique wines. Oils with up to 2 percent acidity earn the “virgin” tag. Forget the sluts, er, oils over 3 percent. And also forgo “light” olive oil: the only thing it’s low on is flavor.

There’s a reason for the large variety of oils: different oils suit different purposes. Think basic wine pairing: match light with light and heavy with heavy. Use subtle oils on mild salad greens or as bread dips, or drizzle a bit on fish, chicken or simple desserts like fruit salad, pound cake or biscotti. Big oils can stand up to red meat - try the Tuscan trick of finishing off a thick grilled steak with a slosh of spicy, robust oil. Better yet, brush the oil on with a rosemary branch while the steak sizzles.

Sometimes the best cooking is no cooking at all. There’s nothing simpler or more satisfying than setting out three or four bottles of oil at the dinner table, along with your chosen vino, some good bread and a cheese or three, before, during and/or after your meal. (If everyone wears black you can feel really superior and Eurotrashy.)

Tasting olive oil is a lot like tasting wine: you can stick to one country (Spain, Greece), one region (Tuscany, Sonoma), or one varietal (manzanilla, arbequina) and compare six or eight side by side. Or you can taste a random assortment, and maybe throw in a flavored oil that has citrus or herbs blended in. Add some cubes of chewy bread, little bowls or paper/plastic tasting cups and some easy-drinking wine. Kick back. Speak to each other in Spanish. Wait for Penelope Cruz to show up.

Check out The Flavors of Olive Oil by Deborah Krasner (Simon & Schuster, 2002) and the Web sites of the International Olive Oil Council ( and the California Olive Oil Council ( Or just Google “olive oil” and click around the 50 million or so sites that come up.


XX. Antara
100% Arbequina Olives
Tarragona - Spain $16/750ml
The Ellen DeGeneres of olive oils - easygoing, smooth and slightly nutty. Close to XXX.

XX. Nunez de Prado
Extra Virgin
Family Estates Crop; Baena - Spain $24/500ml
Chris Rock hosting the Oscars - dark, intense and zingers start to finish (but you know what you’re gettin’).

XX. Caroliva
Extra Virgin
Estate Grown and Bottled; Andalusia - Spain $20/500ml
Think a big, buttery chard on steroids. Rich gold color, soft, round and juicy. Close to XXX.

XX. Columela
Picual and Hojiblanca Olives
Andalucia - Spain $19/500ml
Gael Garcia Bernal’s eyes - big, deep and dark. Touch o’ pepper on the finish. Close to XXX.

XX. Gasull
Arbequina Olives
Catalonia - Spain $22/500ml
Cool deep-green bottle with a long slim neck. Purrs like Scarlett Johansson in a Ferrari: soft and elegant with a long, smooth finish.

X. Jordan
Hand-Picked, Extra Virgin, From Italian Varietals
Alexander Valley - Sonoma $25/375ml
Kind of a bait-and-switch: starts out sweet and fruity, then morphs into a porcupine by the time it smacks your tonsils. Close to XX.

X. L’Estornell
Extra Virgin, Organic Arbequina Olives
Catalonia - Spain $15/375ml
Like Erica Christensen in most of her movies: all sweetness and light in the opening scene, but she grabs you by the throat in the last act. Close to XX.

X. Molino de Leoncio Gomez
Extra Virgin, Unfiltered, Picudo and Hojiblanca Olives
Cordoba - Spain $11/500ml
Gotta hunt for the flavors at first, then they do the Big Bang in the back of your mouth. Close to XX.

XXX. Pons
Extra Virgin, Arbequina Olives
Catalonia - Spain $16/473ml
Yo-Yo Ma playing a cello concerto - rich, deep and resonant. Pale gold, medium body, with layers of fresh apple, almond and spice flavors, and a nice little kick on the finish.

XX. Poplar Hill
2005 Extra Virgin
Spring Mountain - Napa Valley $20/375ml
Light, airy, silky, delicate and balanced; buttery, hazelnutty and smoooooth. An obvious late-picked oil (check the harvest date!) that deserves nothing more than a chunk of good bread and a pinch of salt. Close to XXX.

XX. Skipstone Ranch
Melina’s Harvest, November 2004, Extra Virgin
Alexander Valley - Sonoma County $25/375ml
Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby - brawny, punchy, ends with a surprising knockout.

XX. Soler Romero
100% Picual Olives
Andalusia - Spain $18/500ml
Why does this taste like nectarines, white pepper and grass? Starts fruity and sweet, then turns tangy on the finish. Slather some on sliced oranges with red onion slivers, lemon juice and salt.

X. Unio
100% Arbequina Olives
Siurana - Spain $16/750ml
The NZ sauv blanc of olive oils - spicy and green start to finish. Makes a great pesto with basil, anchovies and good parmigiano reggiano. Close to XX.

X. Zoe
Extra Virgin
Castilla-La Mancha - Spain $9/1-Litre Tin
A tad rustic and rough, but a good value. Great for stir-frying veggies. Close to XX.

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