"Nicholas Coleman knows a lot about olive oil. He is an olive oil expert. I use a lot of extra-virgin olive oil, and sometimes Nick wanders into DP and we drink different oils and talk. He has perfectly groomed facial hair, goes by "Nicky Oils." He works in New York City at Eataly, a food emporium owned by the Bastianiches and Mario Batali. He strong-armed his way into the job. He strong-armed Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. I cannot explain how insane that is." -Del Posto's James Beard Award-Winning Pastry Chef Brooks Headley
ON REGIONAL ITALIAN OLIVE OILS
by Nicholas Coleman
Class A extra-virgin olive oil is, after salt, the most fundamental ingredient in the culinary world. It is the king of the Italian pantry and the backbone of the Mediterranean diet. Few foods are as versatile or as useful to the home or professional cook. Olive oil pairs well with vegetables, beans, bread, pizza, pasta, cheese, soup, salad, seafood, meat, poultry, and yes, dessert.
A wide variety of boutique Italian-grown, single-estate oils has enriched the olive oil market over the past few years. How best to pair these oils with the appropriate cuisines and courses requires an understanding of their individual virtues.
Oils vary greatly in character from country to country and region to region...there are, in fact, often distinct differences evident within the same olive grove from one season to the next. Like wine, all olive oils are not created equal. Key determinants include the age and health of the trees, the olive cultivars, the timing of the harvest, the soil, the growing season weather patterns, the altitude, how quickly the olives are brought from tree to mill, and, most important, as with wine making, the skill and diligence of the grove's caretaker.
Italy, generally, can be divided into three olive oil production zones: northern, central, and southern. Each region has its own distinctive flavor profile.
Due to the region's typically late harvest, oils produced in Northern Italy tend to be buttery, mellow, and delicate, with soft undertones of sweet almonds or toasted pine nuts. These oils generally finish with a slight nip of black pepper and pair best with dishes in which the oil's flavor is intended to subsume, not overpower, the other ingredients, making them ideal for finishing basil pesto, eggs, or raw fish.
Central Italy produces oils that tend to have strong aromas of freshly cut grass and bitter herbs, ending with a pungent, lingering black pepper finish that slowly trails off in the back of the throat. The cause of this intense peppery sensation...considered an attribute of high-quality olive oil...is oleocanthal, a natural phenolic compound that has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This style of oil is best utilized when the intent is for the oil to cut through and brighten up the dish, pairing well with red meat, cannellini beans, or a simple tomato soup.
Oils produced in Southern Italy, where primarily green olives are harvested early, tend to be fruity and vibrant, with hints of green apple skin or green tomato vine, ending with a robust, peppery finish. These oils will be quite assertive when used as a finishing oil and can add to the food a pleasing fruity, zesty element. These oils pair well with grilled seafood, Caprese salad, or eggplant caponata.
A variety of approaches can be applied to pairing oil with a specific dish. One is to consider how the food is prepared: Is it raw? Baked? Grilled? Fried? Each method produces a different food "weight" that better corresponds with an oil's particular intensity. For example, a grassier, more robust oil would be a better choice for a seasoned grilled steak than for a raw preparation, such as steak tartare.
It is also helpful to think regionally. If, for example, the goal is to re-create an authentic Tuscan dish, then the most accurate result will be achieved using a high-quality Tuscan oil. If the goal is to re-create a Sicilian dish, use Sicilian oil.
When choosing oil, the three most important pieces of information to look for on the label are the harvest date, olive cultivars, and the region from which it originates.
Unlike many wine varieties, olive oil does not improve with age, so freshness is a key quality component. Check the date. In addition, different olives will have varying organoleptic properties (taste, color, aroma, feel, etc.), and knowing the cultivars of which the oil is composed is crucial. There is a saying: "What grows together goes together." Be sure the olives from which the oil in the bottle is produced come not only from one country, but from a specific, localized region within that country.
Most important, when choosing oil, be sure to smell and then taste it...one its own, independent of other foods...so that you can experience and then analyze its viscosity and flavor profile. This will trigger ideas about what it pairs best with. There are no firm rules here. It is very personal. With eyes closed, listen to your palate.
Finally, no single oil can solve all your culinary conundrums. Have a variety of oils on hand. At minimum, one each of the three above-mentioned types, indicated by region: a delicate finishing oil that won't overpower basic flavors, one robust finishing oil to cut through stronger food, and one more affordable (but clean-tasting) extra-virgin olive oil for cooking.