BY LAURA GOLDSTEIN
Mythology tells us that in ancient Greece, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and Poseidon, the god of the sea, were bickering over who should rule the roost. To settle the dispute, – winner take all – they decided to hold a competition to decide who could come up with the most impressive gift to mortals. Poseidon (forever the drama queen) plunged his trident into the Acropolis, creating a magnificent saltwater fountain. Athena simply bent towards earth and threw her javelin into the ground where it miraculously turned into an olive tree. The fountain, though beautiful, was no contest to the olive tree that provided food, oil, shade and fuel. Athena won and the capital city of Greece (Athens) is her namesake. Poseidon, notoriously in need of anger management, threw a thunderbolt at the olive tree to destroy it. However, the next morning a new shoot appeared on the tree (olive trees are extremely resilient and can live thousands of years and it’s not unusual to see new buds appear on what is thought to be dead wood.) To this day, there is a spectacular lone olive tree growing in front of the Parthenon in Greece- part of the Acropolis. Could this be Athena’s ancient olive tree planted by her javelin?
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I’m sucking on my teeth, making a hissing sound like a deflating balloon as instructed, but trying not to cough while savouring a fruity yet peppery slurp of Vantera Extra Virgin Olive Oil, produced in Campania, Italy. It hits the back of my throat unexpectedly, with a spicy wallop. Sampling exceptional EVOO is very similar to wine tasting – without the buzz- but after 5 varieties from delicate to robust (that’s about a tablespoon of each) I really crave a side order of salad and pasta!
Teresa Kuhn and husband Gian Marco Litrico of The Olive Oil Merchant, Kelowna, were so passionate about artisan produced Italian EVOO, that they parlayed their amore into an import distribution business, selling to Canadian restaurants and gourmet stores directly and online to the public.
They met in Milan where Litrico was the communications director at Hutchison Whampoa Limited. “I already spoke French and was told that they were sending me someone (Vancouver-born Kuhn fluent in Italian and working in Italy) who would help me in English. That was Teresa and I eventually married the teacher!” laughs Litrico.
By 2008 and pregnant with her 2nd daughter, Kuhn really missed her family in B.C. but wanted a viable business idea that would connect both cultures when they moved back. “I noticed a huge gap in extra virgin olive oils in Canada and surprisingly even high-end chefs (unless they were trained in Europe) did not even realize the differences,” she admits. “I read Tom Mueller’s controversial book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil in which low-quality, even chemically tampered olive oils from Spain or Tunisia are passed off as Italian extra virgin as in the Bertolli exposé. That convinced me even more that there was a niche here in Canada for importing top quality artisan-made products. “
With an office in Vermezzo, Italy, Kuhn started to visit local farmers (over 700 varieties of olives are cultivated in Italy alone) where the fertile terroir contributes to notes of tomato, artichoke, and grass transferred to the fruit. Unlike high-tech commercial production trucked off-site that often with bland results, the entire process by definition of artisan EVOO must take place on the farmer’s land. From hand-picked fruit to bottling, it’s a complicated juggling act of art -blending two or more types of olives to attain just the right balance of fruitiness and pepperiness – and science, as olives must be harvested and pressed, often by traditional stone wheels, within 24 hours as they start to degrade quickly (Extra Virgin refers to the and highest quality). By 2009 Kuhn had sourced their producers and the business venture was born.
Like a religious zealot, Kuhn devotes as much time on EVOO (re)-education through extensive tastings, eye-opening seminars and training restaurant staff as she does on ensuring the highest quality of all the products they import. Vancouver’s Cibo Trattoria; Chef Neil Taylor of the Spanish-themed Espana; Chef Pino Posteraro’s Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill; La Quercia, and Kelowna’s Mission Hill Winery’s cooking classes have all benefited from Kuhn’s expertise. She is a Flos Olei (translates from the Latin as ‘the best oil’) devotee: Considered the bible of olive oils in the same realm as Wine Spectator, it’s written by Italian Marco Oreggia recognized internationally as the undisputed guru of researching and rating olive oils. He and his partner fellow taster, Laura Marinelli, have rated 488 artisan producers in 45 countries in the current edition.
Though all Mediterranean cultures like to take credit for being the first to produce olive oil, its earliest production dates back to the 4th millennium BC in the Middle East in ancient Israel where the oil’s medicinal and ritual uses are mentioned many times in the bible. Olives were crushed by rolling an elliptical shaped stone back and forth or by foot wearing wooden shoes. The implementation of the first type of mechanical tool using a beam and lever dates to around 1500 BC. The olive oil industry became mass produced during the 9th to 7th centuries spreading to Crete and rapidly throughout Greece with the development of presses and a central collection vat.
In 2013, although Greece ranks third in the world behind Italy and Spain for olive oil production, they are the largest consumers of olive oil world-wide with an incredible average of 26 liters per person annually! Compare that to less than a litre per person annually in North America.
Long before the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ was touted as the key to increasing life expectancy or Julia Roberts the virtues of using olive oil on her cuticles; Gwyneth Paltrow as a hair conditioner and Sophia Loren- well, she has said she occasionally bathes in it- ancient Hebrews lit synagogue lamps with olive oil, the olives “beaten for the light “(Leviticus 24:1-3.) Homer referred to olive oil as “liquid gold” in The Odyssey; Hippocrates espoused its curative powers calling it “the great healer.” Olympians oiled their bodies with olive oil before competition and the victors, awarded wreaths of olive leaves.
Rocker, Sting (he performs at Prospera Place, Kelowna May 30) and his wife, filmmaker, philanthropist and humanitarian, Trudie Styler have championed the rejuvenating effects of yoga for years. Could olive oil be the next fountain of youth?
“We’re all looking for ways to enhance our lives as we age and olive oil is full of vitamin A and antioxidants. I use it on my face and I’ve found that my skin really benefits,” enthuses Styler by phone from her New York film production office Maven Pictures. (Girl Most Likely starring Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon and Darrin Criss will be released on July 19th.)
Styler waxes poetic about their organic Palagio EVOO grown and produced at the couple’s 900 -acre estate in Italy. Il Palagio (The Palace) reigns over the undulating Tuscan hills of the medieval town of Figline Valdarno, Florence. Reaching back to the 1700’s with a pedigree of dukes overseeing wine, grain, fruit, honey and olive oil production, the estate had fallen into disrepair before Sting & Styler purchased it in 1999. With modernization but still relying on traditional artisan growing practices and hand labour harvesting techniques, Il Palagio has become a prolific supplier to specialty stores internationally including Harrods, London.
Overseen by estate manager, Paolo Rossi who was actually born on the Il Palagio estate where his family has worked for generations, Rossi coincidentally, is one of the EVOO suppliers working with the Okanagan’s The Olive Oil Merchant.
As the founders of The Rainforest Foundation, environmental issues are dear to Sting and Styler’s hearts and foremost in agricultural practices at Il Palagio. “We’re really proud of our organic extra virgin olive oil- it never ceases to amaze me how olive trees can be several thousand years old and withstand almost any kind of climate. Paolo farms biodynamically; the groves are 360 feet above sea level to avoid the olive fly and the rock is galestro (retains heat, very well drained.) The taste is really defined- slightly peppery and sharp,” explains Styler.
When Sting and Styler visit Il Palagio for their summer holidays, their private chef, Joe Sponzo, often prepares one of the family’s favourite recipes using their home – grown EVOO: Spaghetti al aglio e olio. It’s featured in Women for Women’s International fundraising recipe book Share: The Cookbook That Celebrates Our Common Humanity published by Kyle Books. Foreward by Meryl Streep.
“We love the simplicity of it,” says Styler. “ It’s the ultimate comfort food. Just make sure you don’t go to a business meeting right after eating – it’s heavy on the garlic. Or eat some parsley afterwards!”
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“Whenever I tell people that I have an olive grove on Pender Island, B.C., the only one in Canada, they start laughing in disbelief,” admits international lawyer, artisan farmer and eternal optimist, Andrew Butt.
He and his wife Sandy, unabashedly love olives and travelled extensively throughout Italy, Greece, Morocco and New Zealand visiting olive producers wherever they went. Convinced that olive trees would grow in Canada when they saw them thriving in colder areas of Piedmont Italy, Butt imported 100 Italian Frantoio, and Lecciolive varieties from California through Michael Pierce on Saturna Island who started the Saturna Olive Consortium in 2009. Butt christened them the Waterlea Olive Grove. “ It’s much milder here than anywhere else in Canada where the Japanese current and the Pacific meet and our sheltered property has really good drainage and sun all day similar to a Mediterranean climate” explains Butt. “Our objective is to eventually press extra virgin olive oil but so far we’ve just bottled the olives for friends, family and local restaurants until we get a bigger yield.” His dream of producing Canada’s first EVOO is a source of constant teasing from his two brothers in Elgin, South Africa, well known EVOO producers. Their 3000 olive trees surround a charming inn, Rockhaven Farm. (Chef Jaime Oliver is a frequent guest.) In the meantime, the entrepreneurial Butt is looking into producing olive leaf tea- a new trend in Europe and said to be good for high blood pressure.
“I drink two tablespoons of olive oil every day of my life,” says the 64-year-old “and my doctor says I’m in amazing shape!”
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Sting & Trudie Styler’s “comfort food” as prepared by their chef, Joe Sponzo:
Spaghetti al aglio e olio
Prepare 5 minutes | Cook 10 minutes | Serves 4–6
450g dried spaghetti
175ml–225ml extra virgin olive oil
6–8 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon chili flakes
finely grated Parmesan, to serve
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water for about 8–10 minutes or until barely tender but firm to the bite. Drain and reserve about 4 tablespoons of the cooking water. Set aside and keep warm.
2 Return the pan to a medium heat and pour in the extra virgin olive oil. Add the garlic and chili flakes, then reduce the heat and immediately add the drained hot pasta and the reserved cooking water. Toss and stir so that the oil and water emulsify. Serve immediately, topped with grated Parmesan and accompanied by a bitter leaf salad (see below).
Bitter leaf salad with an olive oil, citrus and caper dressing:
Prepare 5 minutes | Serves 4
1 head of fennel
40g wild rocket
2 tablespoons capers
2 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
juice of 1 orange
2 tablespoons grated Pecorino cheese (optional)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Finely slice the fennel and radicchio and place in a large bowl with the watercress, rocket and capers.
2 In a small bowl, mix together the olive oil and the lemon and orange juices.
Pour the dressing over the salad and sprinkle over the cheese (if using).
Season with a little salt (not too much as the capers and cheese are salty) and lots of freshly ground black pepper.
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Are You An Olive Oil Virgin? How To Choose The Best Quality Olive Oil
For those of us who are too intimidated or embarrassed to ask, you may be relieved to learn that it’s possible to be virgin and, even better- extra virgin- at least when referring to olive oil!
According to the International Olive Oil Council (they set the quality standards for most olive oil producing countries except the U.S. who have their own regulations,) virgin and extra virgin olive oils are both made from cold pressing; chemicals and high heat are not allowed in their production. Extra virgin or EVOO is considered superior as it has the lowest acidity -no more than 0.8 percent. It may also be cultivated on estate farms where the fruit is grown, handpicked, pressed and bottled all on-site (artisan) and it’s distinguished by unrivaled fragrance (grassy, tomato, woody,) and flavour (spicy, peppery, fruity), especially when eaten uncooked. Colour ranges from a golden yellow to vivid greens and are created by the olive type, (there are hundreds) climate, soil and crushing practices.
A label that says pure olive oil is where definitions get fuzzy because some virgin olive oils are chemically treated to neutralize acidity then blended with lesser grades, and sometimes passed off as higher grade EVOO.
Teresa Kuhn and Gian Marco Litrico of The Olive Oil Merchant, Kelowna are not only the online purveyors of quality extra virgin Italian olive oils but strive to inform the consumer –from amateur foodie to professional chef on the merits and (pardon the pun) pitfalls when choosing olive oils.
Tips when you go to the store – read the labels carefully!
- Look at the bottle or tin. If it’s plastic – Kuhn advises, give it a pass. Light speeds up its breakdown and rancidity. Olive oil should always be packaged in dark bottles or stainless steel tins to prevent oxidizing
- Examine the label – if you want the greatest health benefits, EVOO rather than virgin olive oils, contains the most polyphenols or antioxidants that contribute to lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and risk of heart disease
- Olive oil made from green (unripe) olives has more polyphenols than oil made from ripe (dark) olives
- Is there a ‘best before date’ on the bottle? Or a harvested date? The European Union regulations insist that this appear on every bottle and tin. That date should be no more than 18 months from when the olive oil was bottled. “Unlike wine, Kuhn explains, “olive oil does NOT improve with age”
- Kuhn emphasizes that if the label does not list what region the olives were grown in or says ‘packaged’ or ‘bottled’ somewhere else, chances are this is a commercial-grade olive oil.
- You get what you pay for- if a bottle of olive oil is really cheap that usually means poor quality
- Dieters beware- there is no such thing as ‘lite’ olive oils no matter how persuasive the label.
- Always store in a cool dark place at home. Rule of thumb: if you don’t remember when you bought it that means it’s time to toss it
Here are a few favourites chosen by The Olive Oil Merchant http://www.oliveoilmerchant.com
Bonamini Veneto DOP: ranked 96/100 by Flos Olei (the Wine Spectator equivalent in the olive oil world) voted Best Delicate DOP in their 2013 edition. From the Veneto Valpolicella region of Italy. Delicious blend of favarol & grignao olives with a scent of fresh tomatoes. 500ml, $18.00
For a splurge try Franci Le Trebbiane from Tuscany ranked 98/100 by Flos Olei. A mix of 4 olive types, it’s a golden green colour, fruity with scents of artichokes, and a rich, spicy finish. Delicious in soups, salads or with fish and roasted meats. 500ml, $26.50
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I admit it- I’m a sucker for beautiful packaging. Whoever said ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ obviously knew nothing about the advertising industry. The New York International Olive Oil Competition’s president and publisher of Olive Oil Times, Curtis Cord, recently announced their judges’ picks for the best olive oils of 2013. In addition, they were so impressed by the packaging, they created a new category. Cord asked well-known NY designer, Debbie Millman of Sterling Brands to judge the packaging portion of the competition.
If you don’t mind seeing olive oil showcased like designer perfume or your husband’s aftershave, you will be amazed by the creativity. Just don’t store it in the bathroom!