The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

In Praise of Olive Oil

Posted on | February 29, 2016 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

An Il Palazzone olive tree

An Il Palazzone olive tree

Last week, I got my yearly bottles of olive oil from Il Palazzone, which is always a reason to rejoice and to remember the time that, moved by the romance of Montalcino, I once picked and ate an olive off a tree. Later, I told Laura Gray, the Estate Manager at Il Palazzone, that I had.

“Did you regret it?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Immediately and for about a half hour thereafter.”

In their raw, unpressed, unfermented state, olives are rich in oleuropein, a phenolic compound that makes eating a raw olive not unlike stuffing your mouth with antiperspirant. It is disgusting. So disgusting, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine that something as delicious as olive oil could come from something that inherently repellent. Jonathan Swift famously said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” One could easily say the same about the first man who squished a bunch of olives in the hopes of making something palatable.

Olive oil is as ubiquitous, essential and telling as wine or bread in Italy. I imagine that the same holds true in other prized olive oil capitals of the world—Spain, for instance—but I speak from experience in Italy. Just about every winemaker also makes olive oil. Like making wine, crafting olive oil is a painstaking process that requires a lot of manual labor and no small amount of finesse. Makers of olive oil take great pride in how long it takes for the olive to go from tree to press; the longer the time, the more bitter the oil, and the shorter the time, the sweeter. Il Palazzone prides itself on getting the olives from tree to pressed oil in a matter of hours. A look at the estate’s webpage on its olive oil gives you a fairly comprehensive idea of precisely how exacting the creation of olive oil is.

Some olive oils make us cough, and this visceral kick comes from TRPA1, a cluster of proteins at the back of your throat. Some time ago, NPR published an interesting piece on TRPA1 and extra virgin olive oil (known, apparently, as EVOO, which looks to me like the name of a villainous organization from Get Smart or Austin Powers); scientists hypothesize that sitting at the back of your throat, TRPA1 is the last best place to alert you to breathing in noxious fumes–if you cough a lot, you’re going to get out of there. Interestingly, this irritation might also be the source of EVOO’s salubrious anti-inflammatory effects.

Il Palazzone's olive trees in bloom

Il Palazzone’s olive trees in bloom

Olives, as everyone who pays attention to nutrition knows, are excellent sources of monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. The Mayo Clinic notes that MUFAs can help lower total cholesterol  levels, aid with blood clotting, and possibly help stabilize insulin levels and control blood sugar. All of this means that olives and olive oil are more than just tasty–they’re good for you.

To anyone who has eaten an olive off the tree, pressing olives might seem like a radical act, but what a luscious, pellucid, peppery, gorgeous thing a squished olive (or several thousand squished olives) can make. Like wine, olive oil is the product of both where its raw materials grow, and how its maker treats those raw materials. Unlike wine, olive oil is best very fresh. The fresher it is, the more aromatic. A fine olive oil glows an incandescent green. It seems like something that belongs at the bottom of the sea. It’s otherworldly and ethereal, as much as it’s earthy and visceral.

And if it’s a seriously good olive oil, you don’t heat it; you don’t cook with it; you drizzle it on vegetables or bread and you enjoy it as its makers intended: slowly, thoroughly and while dreaming of Montalcino.

 

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