Like wine, olive oil can be a delicious expression of terroir.
Photo credit: Monica Larner
Where grapevines grow, olive trees are almost always close at hand. Grapes and olives share a similar history; both were vital commodities of the ancient world and both were celebrated for their symbolic meaning—vines as a symbol of life and renewal, and olives as a symbol of life and longevity.
Olives and grapes are agricultural accomplices and, on at least one level, agricultural synonyms: Both wine and olive oil are identified by terroir, or the environmental factors that distinguish them.
"An old Tuscan proverb says that where olives can't grow, a great
wine is impossible to make," says Maurizio Castelli, who makes both wine and oil around the world as a
consultant in California, Italy and New Zealand "That's an oversimplification, but underlines a fundamental truth about the role of terroir: Comparing oil from California and Tuscany is exactly the same as comparing a Bordeaux Cabernet to a Napa Valley Cabernet."
Olives and grape are also linked by the fact that they are icons of Mediterranean living. Knotted and twisted trunks rise majestically on the flanks of Tuscan hilltop towns and enormous groves texture many parts of the Spanish countryside; their silver-hued leaves shimmering in the strong sun.
Both olives and grapes are believed to have originated in Asia Minor; over time, they spread throughout the Mediterranean, where both found an ideal habitat. Cultivation of olives began well before the birth of Christ.
The ancients considered olive oil a rare and precious good and referred to it as "liquid gold." Back then, it was used as an aesthetic adornment: Gladiators rubbed it over their bodies to appear virile and strong before confronting the dangers of the arena.
Olive oil, like wine, also found its way into religious observance. Olive oil was often the holy oil used in Christian services, and it was used in Jewish rites as well. The Prophet Muhammad advised anointing the body with olive oil.
Because of its outstanding lifespan and slow growth, planting an olive tree was considered an act of faith in what the future would bring. An Italian saying goes: "You don't plant an olive tree for your child; you plant it for your grandchild."
Only in recent times did this precious ointment become a common condiment for food. And because it is a terroir-driven ingredient, it brings regional authenticity to a dish. What would a bruschetta be without pungent olive oil soaked deep into the toasted bread? What would a soupe au pistou be without luminous droplets of oil floating on top?
Chef Pino Cuttaia who runs the La Madia restaurant in Licata, Sicily, is an olive oil artisan who uses the condiment like paint to color his dishes and to reinforce their Sicilian identity. "Olive oil has 360 degree of latitude and I use it as a means of expressing myself," he explains. His signature culinary touch is oil infused with Sicilian essences: oil with ash to recall the allure of volcanic Mount Etna, oil with bergamot over raw fish and oil infused with wild oregano to recall the heady local flora. "I use oil from olive trees that grow right outside Licata. That oil is part of my cuisine, my culture and my territory," he explains.
In addition to being an expression of place, oil has special properties that must be considered when paired with wine. "Olive oil adds that extra touch of fattiness, acidity, fragrance and spice that can complete and characterize any dish," says sommelier Daniela Scrobogna. "Oil often makes the flavor of a dish more intense, persistent and structured, and therefore it becomes a factor to consider when pairing that dish with wine."
Scrobogna is a member of the Italian Association of Sommeliers and has worked to devise a food pairing methodology that categorizes ingredients by acidity, fat content and sweetness. One sub-category is dedicated to "unctuous" ingredients, and that category is entirely represented by olive oil. Unctuousness is a quality that differs from the fattiness of butter or cream (which are sweeter), and therefore, she says, requires special consideration when pairing with wine. A wine with high acidity could clash with the oil's piquancy, and an aromatic one could mask the oil's subtle nuances.
Due to its much-touted health benefits and the popularity of Mediterranean cooking and lifestyle, olive oil has, in the past decade or so, made the transition from luxury good to regular cooking ingredient. The market has been showing a steady growth in sales over the past decade: In 2005, the U.S. olive oil market was valued at $894 million, which represented 10 percent growth over the previous year, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau. Much of those sales are generated from imported European oils that are finding retail outlets not only in high-end gourmet boutiques, but in neighborhood supermarket chains as well.
In fact, olive oil's surging popularity is one more quality it shares with wine; as our own wine culture takes shape, so does our embrace of olive oil. The past few years have seen Americans becoming more adventurous with their wine experiences—tasting unknown wines from little-known wine regions. Olive oil is not far behind, with oils from places like southern France, Spain and Greece steadily attracting new fans. Wine and olive oil, it seems, have been traveling together as a pair since the earliest days of Western civilization, and are traveling together still.