When Matt and I were in California a couple months ago, we went to the most wonderful tasting room, that of J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines. I loved their wines, especially a Riesling that our pourer adored. I adored our pourer, an elegant older woman, maybe in her fifties, with short funky hair and glasses with these awesome sparkling turquoise rims. She was so cool and mellow—an absolute delight. The tasting room had a fun, relaxed vibe to it, like the whole place was infused with the quiet joy of people doing something they love. Before we left, I flipped through a copy of a book by Peggy Knickerbocker called Olive Oil: From Tree to Table. A whole book about olive oil! I really, really wanted to take a copy of it home with me, but old miserly habits die hard. I put it back on the shelf, but I took home with me this realization: no matter how much wine I sip, food comes first with me.
I also took home with me the desire to recreate some of that tasting room magic but with food instead of wine. I loved all the sniffing, the swirling, the sipping, the sharing that happens in those tasting rooms. I liked being surprised by the differences and complexities among the wines we tasted. With wine-drinking, there is both a timeless quality and an acute sense of time. People have been drinking wine for ages, so when we swirl and sip, we clink glasses with our ancestors. But the experience of a particular glass of wine is utterly dependent on that moment in time: how long the wine was aged in barrels, then bottles. How long that particular bottle has been open. How long the wine has been sitting in that glass, your glass. And my favorite part, what food you are eating while you drink that glass of wine.
To be perfectly honest, I used to think that people who described bizarre taste sensations, whether in wine or food, were total bullshitters. I’d secretly roll my eyes at their pretentiousness and go back to drinking my wine that tasted like—surprise!—alcoholic fruit. But then I heard about this study conducted at Northwestern University in which people’s brain activity and subjective reports suggested that exposure to a variety of mints can enhance their ability to smell differences among the mints. Suddenly, it gave me hope that I too could become a better smeller and a better taster if I trained my senses! How cool is that?
To add fuel to my fire, my friend Asmodeus was frighteningly ill for more than a month last year, and afterward, he complained that he couldn’t taste all the layers in wine that he’d enjoyed prior to his illness. While he was sick, he didn’t drink any wine, so my hypothesis was that his tasting prowess was in part dependent upon frequent tastings: use it or lose it, buddy. He did eventually recover his wine palate and has been drinking happily ever since.
Asmodeus’s example showed me that if I were to embark upon a tasting project, it would need to be something I enjoy regularly—preferably daily. And it would be more fun for me if I can enjoy it in different contexts, the same way that wine can be enjoyed alone, with a snack, during a full-blown meal, with dessert, or even as a stand-alone dessert. I wanted my tasting project to have that kind of flexibility and spontaneity.
Introducing Project Olive Oil.
Few ingredients other than olive oil get daily face-time in my kitchen. My sweet tooth tells me this could have been Project Sugar—maybe that will be my next project—but for now, it’s Project Olive Oil. The idea is this: every other month or so, I’ll try out a new extra-virgin olive oil and report my findings in a new post on this site. My goal is to keep the project going for at least a year. That’s six bottles of olive oil, a new one every two months. I think my wallet can handle that.
Because Project Olive Oil is a tasting project, I don’t care about finding the “best” olive oil. In fact, I hope all the oils I try are tasty. My goal is to explore a single ingredient, cooking and tasting my way through different recipes. But I am interested in trying different olive oils in the same contexts, so I plan to run each specimen through a rotation of recipes in which oil is a crucial element:
* Bread with oil and vinegar. Self-explanatory. And oh so good.
* My Chicago Salad. I use olive oil for two ingredients here: dressing the lettuce leaves and making the fresh croutons. A good oil just makes this salad sing with flavor, but it’s certainly not the only flavor here.
* Caprese salad. A quintessential example of how incredible ingredients can elevate simple to sublime. This one is dependent upon having good tomatoes, so I’m reserving the right to play around with this one—caprese salad in the summer, perhaps slow-roasted tomatoes in the winter? I’m open to other tomato ideas here.
* Baked goods. This is a bit of a wild-card category because I want the freedom to play around with different recipes. I’m not ready to pick a single recipe (like, say, an olive oil cake) to see how all my selections perform in the same baking task. But I do think this is an important category. High-quality extra-virgin olive oil can be expensive, and baked goods need more oil than a salad. That means the flavor needs to be really spectacular to dazzle me in baked goods. (By the way, my sweet tooth is pretty excited about this category!)
I am excited that this project has an unusual shopping element to it. My initial observations indicate that there aren’t a huge number of artisan-made or estate-grown olive oils that can be purchased at, say, Whole Foods. Most of the olive oils on the shelf at a supermarket don’t seem to be very distinct from each other, and they tend to run about ten to fifteen bucks for a pint. I did find one very good specimen for Project Olive Oil at Whole Foods; its identity shall be revealed in good time.
I suspect that the artisan-made oils will turn out to the be most interesting and delicious. They may turn me into a poor woman with a very large collection of expensive olive oils. Nevertheless, I shall persevere! My plan is to start off with local shopping; we’ll see how long I last. There is an intriguing olive oil store at Old Orchard Shopping Center called Oil & Vinegar. I stopped in very briefly last month to check it out and felt a little dizzy staring at all the choices. I’m excited to return with a more specific idea of oils I’d like to try.
Finally, let us refrain from using any acronyms for Project Olive Oil, shall we?