And now, here is the rest of the story.
I used to be the world’s pickiest eater. Then one year I made a New Years resolution to learn to like one new food per year. And then, when my ex-wife returned to college, I took on the task of cooking for the family, and started looking for healthy recipes instead of just making the four things I knew how to cook. Somewhere in that timeline, I discovered olive oil. I think it was watching Rachel Ray when I got intrigued by EVOO as she called it – Extra Virgin Olive Oil and started looking for better quality olive oils. Apparently others were doing the same thing, because specialty stores started popping up selling oils from around the world, and offering free tastes before purchase. Drizzle in Bellingham, Washington became my favorite local source; weekend trips found my new wife and I tasting in Port Townsend, Leavenworth, Coquitlam, B.C., and at Pike Place market in Seattle. Longer trips found us slurping exotic oils in Santa Fe and Sonoma. And then came Italy in 2016.
I have always been enamoured of Italy, always wanted to travel there, but had never been abroad before, so it seemed a little daunting. One day we were wine tasting at Hellams Vineyard in La Conner, and saw lots of photos of people wine tasting in Italy on a large TV they had. It turns out they conducted guided trips there, and had one coming up to Puglia, ‘way down in the heel of Italy’s boot. Seven days, less than 20 people, staying at an Agriturismo with daily excursions to wineries, fabulous restaurants, historical sites … and an olive oil producer. We signed up.
Every day, after breakfast in the huge family manor dining area, we would walk about a third of a mile down the narrow roadway to the equivalent of a small county road to wait for our bus to take us on another adventure. One day we headed out, and were taken to a small town where we got to go underground and see the remains of an old olive oil mill. It was recently discovered when someone went to construct a new building, and broke through the “roof”. The workers had apparently just walked off the job one day, and left it intact. Back in the day, olive oil was used primarily for lighting, as well as cooking. Once electricity came, the demand for olive oil plummeted.
From this ancient mill, now a museum, we went to an olive grove, owned and operated by two brothers, one who spoke excellent english, and gave us great insights to growing olives. Besides some older trees (which can live to be hundreds of years old, and are protected by law), they are planting ancient varieties that used to be grown and harvested there. We then went to his home, where a treat awaited us – a small simple repast, complete with a lesson on how to taste olive oil. We were instructed to fill a very small cup with the oil, then taste and swallow.
Maybe even more so than wine, every olive growing region has a distinct flavor profile. Once swallowed, great oil should leave a bit of a burn in the throat. Apparently, most olive oils consumed in the USA are actually a mix of olive oil and other vegetable oils. Also, they have a shelf life; the best oils will have a harvest date on the label, and should be consumed within 12 – 18 months of harvest. The “tapas” they served paired perfectly with the olive oil; we were not only able to take the small, unfinished bottles with us (which we used in cooking our own meals in Italy after we left the tour), but we were also able to order 3 liter tins of the oil from the orchards we had visited for pick up once we got home. You can check them out here.
Since then, we became even more picky about our olive oil purchases. We typically have two olive oils on our counter at all times; one high quality bottle for cooking and everyday use, and one very high quality one for special uses. Pouring some in a small bowl with an exceptional balsamic vinegar, and using it as a dip for artisan rosemary bread (from Avenue Bread in Bellingham) is simply wonderful. So, besides visiting every olive oil purveyor we can, we found that Costco often has pretty decent oils from Puglia and other southern Italy or Greecian locations. Now COVID has put the kibosh on both olive oil tasting rooms, but also in-store Costco shopping for us. In desperation, I went online to Costco, and low and behold, they have some really good olive oils in 3 liter tins that they ship directly to our home! We’ve nearly finished off two tins, and just got in two more. These are from southern Italy, and sound like they should taste great.
So, this is a journey that never ends, as long as there is a new pressing of oil from a far-flung location for us to try. Years ago, I’m sure I would have politely declined the invitation to go to an olive oil tasting. Now, I’m so glad I’m out of that box, and ready to explore all the flavors of the world. Join me?
P.S. Our friends Gary and Linda turned us on to what is now our absolute favorite balsamic vinegar. Napa Valley Naturals Balsamic Vinegar is available from almost every food co-op, or online. You may want to check it out!