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Like Fine Wines, Fine Olive Oils Boast Subtle Joys

"What do you smell?" she asked.

I leaned over and sniffed the bottle in her hands.

"Floral," I said. She scrunched her face. Clearly, I had more to learn.

Frances Chastang is the packaged food buyer for the gourmet store, Dean & Deluca, in Washington, D.C. She is the region's resident expert on olive oil and even teaches a class on the subject at the Smithsonian.

When I stopped by recently to ask for a few pointers on picking an extra-virgin olive oil, she graciously offered to give me a crash course and an informal tasting, similar to what one would experience with wines. My "floral" mistake was early in the lesson.

Gourmet olive oil, in fact, is a lot like wine — and easily as expensive a habit. Sixteen-ounce bottles of the finest oil can run $30 or more, giving new meaning to Homer's description of it as "liquid gold."

Olive oil can vary widely in taste and price, depending on where it's from and who made it. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil, Italy the most famous. But every country in the Mediterranean proudly bottles its own and proclaims its own the best.

Experts agree, however, that the best-tasting olive oils use the highest-quality olives — the fruit of the olive tree — plucked at the optimal time and processed under ideal conditions.

Pick too soon and the olives will be green and hard, yielding a bitter oil. Wait too long and the olives will have turned black (green olives turn reddish-green then black as they ripen on the tree), and may have lost their essential flavors. The ideal blend is a majority of red-ripe olives and a smaller amount of a different green variety.

Higher-end oil makers rake or brush their olives from the trees and use nets to catch the falling fruit to minimize bruising. Once off the tree, olives begin to oxidize immediately, increasing unwanted acidity levels of the fruit. That's why the finest oils are pressed within 24 hours of picking.

Heat also affects the taste and chemical composition of olives, which is why some oils boast the term "cold pressing" or "first cold pressing" on their labels.

Once harvested, the basic technique of extracting oil dates back to before the ancient Greeks. Fresh olives are crushed or milled, pits and all, into a paste, which is then spread onto sheets of mesh fabric. The sheets are stacked on top of one another, then pressed with a machine to allow the oil to seep down into a holding container. New technology now allows large centrifuges to perform all these steps at once.

In ancient times, the first pressing of olive paste netted the most prized and fragrant batch of oil, usually only 40 percent of the entire yield. The remaining paste would be mixed with water and squeezed for a second pressing. Technical advances enable the "first press" to net roughly 90 percent of the entire juice of an olive.

Based on guidelines set by the International Olive Oil Council, which governs 95 percent of international olive oil production, a "virgin" olive oil has not been refined in any way and has no more than 2 grams of acidity per 100 grams of oil. Extra-virgin olive oil must have no more than .8 grams of acidity, and must also display perfect aroma and flavor.

The finest extra-virgin olive oils should not be used as a medium for hot cooking, but rather as a condiment or a finisher on top of your favorite savory foods. They are expensive, but if stored properly they will last for up to a year and will certainly impress your dinner guests.

What foods go well with gourmet olive oil? My chef-friend Kenny has a wonderful rule of thumb: "Never use olive oil on anything east of the Khyber Pass."

Good olive oil captures the bright essence of fresh olives. It can be drizzled generously on all savory Mediterranean foods — everything from bowls of hummus to roasted lamb or grilled Branzini to your favorite pizza.

If you prefer going the minimalist route, mix the oil with roasted garlic, fresh herbs such as rosemary or sage, cracked pepper and kosher salt, and serve with pieces of crusty bread to use as a sponge.

If you really want to go hardcore, try the olive oil straight from a shot glass or spoon. You'll taste its true complexity and come up with ways to pair it best with food.

I learned this during my short course at Dean & Deluca. There I stood, plastic spoon in hand, a patient supplicant to this golden liquid in a bottle.

My 11th tasting was an oil called Capazzana, from the hilly Carmignano region of northern Italy. Olive has been produced in this area since the ninth century under the reign of Charlemagne.

As soon as the oil hit my tongue, my mouth and brain went into a frenzied game of flavor matching based on the criteria Chastang had given me.

Good oil, again like good wine, takes on different characteristics as it travels down your throat. It can be grassy or peppery. It can taste of apples or artichokes, nuts or chocolate.

This particular oil had a smooth front body, nice grassy tones, and a pleasantly sweet finish. There was an undertone of pepper, but not, as with the signature Dean & Deluca oil, the overpowering pepper that burned like a bright fire in the back of my throat. (I would later learn the peppery flavor registers most intensely on the mucous membranes near the esophagus.)

I imagined drizzling this oil over something simple but satisfying — maybe a salad of fresh field greens and herbs, or slices of grilled zucchini and eggplant. I told Chastang and she finally smiled. It made my day.

That's when I saw the bouquet of fresh flowers on the counter next to us. OK, maybe the flowers, not the oil, were the source of the floral smell. No matter. My noticing skills were vastly improved.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Yoon