Many of you know that the marketplace for olive oil is in some ways more complex than the marketplace for wines. There are great wines and awful wines, but at least we don’t have a significant problem with counterfeit or adulterated wine. Not so with olive oil. There are fakes, that is to say diluted or completely different oils scented to mimic olive oil, lower grade pomace oils mislabled as extra virgin, oils mislabled as to country of origin and then legitimate but just plain awful oils.
A new (bottled since 1820 but new to the US) extra virgin olive oil being imported into the US via South Florida is harvested and pressed by the Gentílí family of the Lazio region of Central Italy. Offered by the botique firm “Best From Italy” operated by expats Anna & Marco Zanna, it is touted as a “finishing oil” meaning the finest grade of oil (from any type of plant) for use only on raw, cold or already cooked foods. The point is that the heat of cooking will burn off the aromatics that separate this finest grade of oil from more robust or less delicate products.
To test the olive oil, I set up a 4-step process. I set some aside plain to be sampled with fresh Cuban bread, a white bread with a neutral flavor; I made a salad of a minced fresh tomato, chopped fresh basil leaves, pine nuts, shaved garlic and kosher salt, then I got out my mortar and pestle and ground some garlic with the olive oil and a touch of egg white to create an aioli. Lastly I boiled some Dreamfields brand penne pasta to the “al dente” stage to sample neat, that is to say, just the pasta and the olive oil alone.
Step 1, bread
Upon opening the bottle, and sampling the aroma, there was the unmistakable olive oil smell, but admittedly it was not particularly strong. This led me to anticipate a milder oil, probably harvested towards the end of the olive season. The oil is clear – not crystal clear and synthetic looking, but naturally clear, evoking a traditional artisan cold pressing. Upon sampling it on a slice of mild, neutral tasting bread, the first thing I noticed was as I anticipated, a mild encounter, though not at all flavorless. There was a fruity start, followed by the unmistakable almondy flavor that only comes from olive oil, but surprisingly finished with a peppery yet still mild taste. This olive oil is mild and delicate, but not without character.
Step 2, aioli
In the aioli (aioli is a condiment made of olive oil and garlic pounded together until a paste forms. Some people add a touch of egg as an emulsifier, yet some purists and traditionalists disdain this. I used about a half teaspoon of egg whites) the fruity and mild character of this olive oil balances the strong punch of the garlic very well. An aggressive early season or heavy Spanish oil might clash in this same situation. Because it is a milder oil, the aromatics of the garlic stood out, giving the aioli an almost wasabi – like character.
Step 3, salad
The olive oil really shone in the tomato salad, contributing a silky texture and moderating the natural chalkiness of the cheese and crunch of the pine nuts. Its delicate flavor profile serves as a wonderful canvas, allowing the enjoyment of the complex fresh (never refrigerated) tomato taste and the fresh cut basil. Again, it served as a competent foil to the pungency of the shaved garlic. The wrong kind of oil would clash with the fresh basil but this olive oil supported the menagerie of flavors quite nicely.
There are some meals like jambalayas or ratatouile where you want a lot of different things going on flavor – wise. Other times you want simplicity. That is when you reach for this olive oil. Certainly fruity and with a peppery aftertaste, it still is unmistakably mild and delicate. A high quality canvas happy to play a supporting role to a cast of other finesse actors. This should not be the only olive oil in your kitchen, but one to use in very simple preparations, like on a plain bruschetta or in a caprese salad with a pouch of fresh burratta. There are occasions where I prefer a more agressive “green” olive oil, pressed earlier in the season or from a different terrioir, yet this still rounds out nicely the 3 or 4 varieties of olive oil I try to keep on hand in my pantry. Gentílí is a great value at the price of $19.99 for a half a liter (16.9 fl oz.) listed on the importer’s website, www.bestfromitaly.us.