Tom Mueller & Laurent Halasz On The Olive Oil Industry's Grave Future
A welcome trend in the Los Angeles dining scene is the pride in which restaurants advertise using local, seasonal and organic products. From high-end restaurants to your neighborhood gastropub, you'll see mentions of "Weiser Family Farm carrots" and "Pork chops sourced from Lindy & Grundy." Home chefs will even tell you which booth at the farmers' market they got those plump dates they are so excited about. Yet many of the same chefs and home cooks will mindlessly reach for that bottle of grocery store olive oil to cook those carefully sourced meats and vegetables, never stopping to think about where the oil came from or its questionable quality.
Fig & Olive founder Laurent Halasz wants to change that. In December, Laurent and Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil author Tom Mueller teamed up for a 4-course olive oil and wine pairing. But the night was about more than just good food and wine. It was about spreading awareness about the significance of olive oil and how great olive oil will disappear if we don't quickly learn to appreciate it.
The dinner began with Mueller and Laurent leading a olive oil tasting. If you've never done a proper olive oil tasting, use your hand to heat the glass of olive oil, sip, slurp and don't be afraid to stick your nose in there - an oily and peppery nose is a small price to pay for picking up the nuances of a good extra virgin olive oil. Don't forget to cleanse that palate between oils; we used apple slices.
The night continued with a cultural history of olive oil. The classic definition of civilized includes olive oil, figs, bread and wine. Drink beer and cook with butter instead? Welcome to the uncivilized camp, you barbarian. Mueller explained how olive oil has played an important symbol throughout history: babies used to be slathered in olive oil during baptisms, and it was olive oil that was used in baths and gymnasiums.
Olive oil has played a significant role in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. ''In Israel it is obvious that Hanukkah is connected with olive oil,'' said David Eitam, director of the Olive Oil Industry Museum in Haifa, Israel. ''The famous miracle in 165 B.C., when Judah Maccabee and his brothers found a drop of oil to light the candelabra in the Temple in Jerusalem, was not soy or vegetable oil. It was olive oil, common in Israel from the time of Adam and Eve.'' In addition to lighting, olive oil was used for fuel, medicine, cooking and ablutions on priests during the biblical period. In the Qu'ran, Prophet Mohammed also drenched himself in olive oil. Other uses of olive oil throughout history includes cosmetics, preservatives, weaving, aphrodisiacs and contraceptives.
Today, of course, we are more familiar with olive oil in the kitchen. There are 200 active ingredients in olive oil, offering important health and nutrition benefits. There are also 700 different kinds of olives, giving chefs like Laurent a great array of options. Diners at Fig & Olive were told, however, that "the clock is ticking." Fresh olive oil should ideally be handpicked and pressed within four hours of harvest, but no more than 12 hours. Sadly, many of the industrial olive oils we are familiar with are made with olives that have been on the ground for months. Star, a popular industrial brand of olive oil, was included in the olive oil tasting, and diners could really tell the difference. Star had an unpleasant metallic quality but slips by home cooks that haven't taken the time to understand olive oil like other ingredients in regular use.
After learning about and sipping on olive oil, it was time to get pairing. The first course of the night was zucchini carpaccio, a signature dish from the chef's mother. The buttery Chemlali olive oil from Tunisia was really able to shine in this dish.
On my last visit to Fig & Olive, I was jealous when the waiter brought steamed striped bass filet in papillote not to me, but to the table next to me. Fortunately, the dish was an option on the olive oil tasting menu. Zucchini, tomato, chickpeas, fennel, verdial olive, fresh oregano, garlic and lemon - all my favorite things sealed in a parchment package. It was paired with the peppery Spanish Picual olive oil.
The rosemary lamb chops were a popular choice this evening. The lamb was nice, and the smokiness of the eggplant was just right. But the excessive honey overpowered it. Green apple sorbet with citrus, Nocellara olive oil syrup and fresh mint served as a lovely end to the meal.
Laurent praised Tom Mueller for being the first one to really articulate the problems the olive oil industry is facing. The UC Davis Olive Center has also done wonderful work uncovering false advertising among olive oil producers. Fortunately, Mueller does more than just expose the problems. He offers resources for people wanting to find quality olive oil. He has a list of great olive oils of the world, many of them from California and tips on olive oil buying. Of course, the best way to choose an olive oil is to taste it yourself, at a restaurant like Fig & Olive, the farmers' market or, if you're lucky, you'll find an olive oil festival. I stocked up at one event recently in Paso Robles.
Olive oil has a rich and important history, and the importance it plays in the kitchen cannot be overstated. Let's raise our glasses of olive oil and toast to throwing out those pathetic bottles of metallic olive oil and promise to be more mindful of the olive oil we use in 2012.
Note: This meal was hosted