Liquid gold: olive oil, along with good red wines, reign in Spain

Olive Oil from Spain recently set up a special ‘Olive Oil 101’ class at John Rivera Sedlar’s Los Angeles restaurant, Playa Rivera. Olive oil expert Alfonso J. Fernandez (left), the esteemed instructor, made it clear that elements of his curriculum provide hours of fun and enlightenment for house party guests when the host is armed with some useful bits of knowledge along with the right tools and terms for proper oil tasting.

While many savvy home cooks and hosts know by now that olive oil is a great base for salad dressing and healthier alternative to butter (in terms of cooking and dipping), Fernandez aptly points out there is far more to love about fine olive oils than the pretty bottles many of them come in.
   Home wine tastings are on the rise, thanks to numerous online and print resources, as well as an endless supply of glassware, terminology and actual wines. So why taste olive oil? Because like wines from all over the world, each individual oil has its own personality, which stems from its varietal as well as its preparation. Like different wines, it also has a special glass, which is usually brown or blue and rounded on the bottom, so the taster can warm the oil, release the aromas and use his or her senses (except sight, in this case) to differentiate between one oil and another.
   So, where to begin? Spain! Why? Because, Spain is the number one producer of olive oil in the world, producing an average of 1 million tons of olive oil a year. Originating from seven regions in Spain, the country exports olive oil to more than 100 countries on five different continents. Though there are plenty of fine oils from Greece, Italy, Australia, Argentina and even the US (among other countries), think of Spain as a sort of point of origin.

  • One of every four olives in the world comes from Spain.
  • Spain accounts for more than 25 per cent of the world’s olive growing surface, with more than 5·6 million acres of cultivation area.
  • There are approximately 260 olive varietals (yes, varietals, or types, like you find when discussing grapes used for wines), and 24 of them are used in olive oil production.
  • Olive oil from Spain originates from seven regions—Andalusia is the leader, producing 80 per cent of the supply. Other regions include: Castilla la Mancha (7 per cent), Extremadura (5 per cent), Catalonia (3·5 per cent), Aragon (2·5 per cent), Valencian community (1 per cent) and the Balearic Islands (1 per cent).
  • Three main types of olive oil include extra virgin (considered the finest of oils in terms of quality), pure (a blend of refined and virgin olive oils) and light (a blend of refined and virgin oils, with a lighter concentration of virgin oils).
  • Spain exports its olive oil to more than 100 countries in five continents: Europe (84 per cent), United States (5·7 per cent), Asia (4 per cent), South America (2·8 per cent), Oceania (2·5 per cent) and Africa (1 per cent).

   Fernandez, meanwhile, offers some tasty tips on how to make Spain’s “fields of (liquid) gold” come alive for guests in ways they never imagined—some that will have them rethinking how olive oil can be enjoyed.
   Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with time, so be sure to use up your bottles in a year to 18 months.
   Olive oils are the best to cook with, not only because of their health benefits, but also because the smoke point is 410 degrees—the highest of all vegetable oils. It is also one of the most economical oils to cook with.
   To enjoy the process of tasting, you would use your senses of smell and taste to differentiate between different oils.
   To taste as the connoisseurs of Spain do, Fernandez recommends use of an olive oil snifter or a wine glass to taste as opposed to bread dipping, as the bread (no matter how artisanal it is), may interfere with some of the natural aromas and flavours.

   You will evaluate olive oil with the following variables:

  • ripe v. green;
  • piquantcy (or “peppery”: does any part of your palate tingle, or does it have any kind of sharpness of aroma?);
  • bitter v. sweet;
  • possible notes of almond, apple, grass, hay.

   There are a handful of primary olive oil varieties. Some of the most common:

  • picual: accounts for 50 per cent of oils produced, and is best used for frying as well as salads and gazpachos;
  • hojiblanca: good for making pastas, breads and pastries based on the consistency it lends to the dough. It is highly flavourful, with both bitter and sweet notes;
  • arbequina: this oil is best for non-cooked food and as flavoring, as its aromatic elements are volatile. It can be used like a condiment on top of meats, fish and roasted vegetables.

And for dessert

Chef John Rivera Sedlar (right) shared one of his simplest, but most impressive dessert recipes.

Chocolate torte with arbequina olive oil

¾ cups heavy cream
10 oz dark chocolate, semi-sweet, broken into ½-inch pieces
1½ tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
6 tablespoons arbequina olive oil
Sprinkle of sea salt

Preparation:

  1. Line an 8-inch circular pan with a large circular coffee filter or waxed paper large enough to come halfway up the pan’s side.
  2. In the top of a double boiler, place cream and chocolate pieces and stir until the chocolate is fully melted and blended with the cream.
  3. Pour mixture into the lined cake pan and chill it in the refrigerator until solid (at least 2 hours). To unmould the torte, place a circle of cardboard or flat plate over the pan. Dunk the bottom of the pan in warm water, then invert it turning it out onto the cardboard or plate.
  4. Lift off the pan and peel off the paper.
  5. Put a decorative stencil on top of the torte. Hold a sieve over the torte’s surface and spoon the cocoa powder into the sieve.
  6. Gently tap the sieve as you move around above the torte to dust its surface evenly. Carefully lift off the stencil. Store in the fridge until it is time to serve!
  7. At the time you serve, carefully drizzle Spanish Arbequina olive oil over the torte and finish with a sprinkle of sea salt.

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