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What makes a good olive oil?
A taste test of different varieties reveals a strong local contender

Credit:Adam Powell

What is extra virgin olive oil? It comes from virgin oil production where olives are not treated with chemicals, has no more than 0.8% acidity, and is not recommended for cooking. High temperatures distort the subtle taste qualities of extra virgin olive oil, so if you are sautéing vegetables for a marinara, you should use something less expensive, like plain old virgin olive oil.

What you want to do with extra virgin olive oil is drizzle it over pan-seared ahi, mix it with fresh lemons and ground black peppercorns to make a vinaigrette for crisp romaine lettuce, or simply pour it into a plate and serve with sliced bread.

The ancients learned to press olives early on, and the highly versatile oil was prized not only for culinary applications but for its utility in cleaning the body (they did not take showers). It was a major industry; many of the clay vases we have today were used to transport olive oil. We now know it as a powerful antioxidant with unique medicinal, nutritional and taste qualities.

I recruited two chefs, an editor, an inveterate traveler and two kids ages 4 and 6 (for that fresh perspective) to sample five extra virgin olive oils: Botticelli, Tassos, Full Circle, Hüsnü's cold-pressed and Sicilian Olive Oil. We poured them into plates and sliced up a round of fresh ciabatta for sopping. The double-blind test was illuminating.

Everyone had paper and pencil. The Italian Botticelli was called "flat, unconvincing," and "rich, oily." But "nice, light" and "my favorite" were contrary opinions, reminding all of the inherent subjectivity in these affairs.

Tassos, bottled in Crete, had "no flavor" and was reportedly "acrid," "mildly nutty" and "sort of bland." Not exactly a hit.

"There is an enormous sameness between these olive oils," the inveterate traveler suddenly proclaimed, and a lively discussion began. Some felt like the project was at risk, that it would be too hard to describe the subtle differences in taste.

We kept sopping. Sicilian Olive Oil was described as having a "strong flavor," tasting "bitter," "sour," with a "strong and bold tone," "different in a good way," "peppery" and "vary good." (Kid comments were easy to pick out.) We began to see that there are describable taste variations between extra virgin olive oils.

Organic Full Circle was called "light...smooth... delicate," "subtle" and "not at all sweet."

After a half-hour of nibbling and tasting, a near-consensus emerged (the sole dissenting opinion belonging to the 4-year-old boy, who preferred the Botticelli). After turning over the cards to reveal which olive oil was which, we saw that "the best," "sweet," buoyant," "exciting," "buttery" candidate with "the best flavor" was Hüsnü's Turkish olive oil, garnering the most accolades and also mathematically the favorite.

Turkey is a large exporter of olive oil; Hüsnü's brand is made from olives hand-picked from trees in the west of Turkey, cold pressed within 24 hours of harvest and not blended or treated in any way. Importing the olive oil is a project started last fall by Resmine and Esenbahar, daughters of State Street restaurateur Hüsnü Atis. Recently Los Angeles become the second city to carry the olive oil, putting Madison ahead of the curve.

It's nice that thinking globally in this case also turned out to be thinking locally.

68 oz., $12

103 oz., $35

Full Circle Organic
17 oz., $13.59

Trader Joe's Sicilian Olive Oil
16.9 oz., $6

17 oz., $19

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