Are you an olive oil elitist?
Well, I wasn’t, but now I think I am. Sort of. Let me explain.
Over glasses of lightly chilled rosé, Jean-André Charial, owner of the Baumanière and the extraordinary chef of its two star restaurant, L’Oustau, the conversation turned to the inevitable subject when one has the good fortune to visit Provence: olives and by extension, oil olive.
Olive oil has been a complicated subject for me. The last time I was in Provence, I found a shop where there seemed to be scores of different types of the golden liquid. As with a visit to a vineyard, the owner of the boutique offered taste testing. When I asked him if he had any favorites among his many cans and bottles he said, “It’s very personal.”
“Yes, I understand that,” I said, ” but a little guidance on your part would be greatly appreciated.”
He then gave me a handful of disposable spoons and more or less indicated I was on my own. But the thing is how does one know whether a strong rather bitter oil could be delicious when combined with the right food or if a light, fruity deliciously palatable one would be the best compliment to a fish or the perfect base for a vinaigrette?
Until last week, I still had no idea about how to either buy or creatively use olive oil beyond my vinaigrette. And, for all I knew, maybe I was using the wrong one on my salads.
Now, when one has the opportunity to ask one of the world’s most famous chefs how one should choose olive oil and how to use it to its best advantage, one would be a fool not to take advantage of his expertise.
He shared several secrets and then stopped mid-explanation to say, “I have an idea; we’ll go to the Moulin Castelines tomorrow and you can see for yourself how olive oil is made and talk to Jean-Benoît Hugues.” (The Moulin Castelines supplies the olive oil for the Baumanière restaurants.)
The harvesting of the olives is a once-a-year event, Monsieur Charial explained, and it is now. How lucky can a girl be?
Monsieur Hugues, who lived many years in the United States and somehow managed to acquire an American accent on his English, returned to his beloved Provence and decided he wanted to be in the business of producing AOC (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) olive oils.
This is a mere sampling of what our little group learned from the proprietor of Moulin Castelines last weekend:
1.) For cooking use every day, buy inexpensive supermarket extra virgin olive oils that cost about $10 for a gallon in the United States.
2.) It makes no sense to use exceptional olive oils for cooking, they are basically condiments and should be used sparingly. The word “drizzle” comes to mind as in lightly drizzle over fish, meat, pasta, vegetables.
3.) Never store olive oil in transparent containers. It would be a good idea to transfer that supermarket brand into a dark bottle.
4.) “The ‘sweet spot’ price for good olive is about $30,” Hugues said.
During our dinner at L’Oustau Monsieur Charial walked around our table and poured a tiny splash of olive oil on each of our bread plates. “You now have the privilege of tasting an olive oil that is two weeks old,” he said. “In a few weeks it will taste different from tonight.”
It was extraordinary — a pale, pale gold; sweet; light; silky.
I now know how to choose and use olive oils. Yes, it’s a question of individual taste preferences, but it can also be about learning how to associate the various strong, medium and light personalities of the oils with different foods to discover how they can enhance flavours in delightfully unexpected ways.