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Recipe: Extending the Olive Branch

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Olive oil "bar" at Bizalion's: Fresh & well priced.

At a dinner party at our house the other night, a guest (who happens to know way more about great food than me, or you, or most anyone on the planet—trust me on this) handed me a lovely cardboard gift box, carefully packed with two slender, ribbon-wrapped, dark glass bottles and more literature than I’ve ever seen accompanying a food product.  “It’s not much,” she said (as it turns out, too modestly,) “but I think you’ll like it.” 

The elaborate presentation is only part of the mystique of Manni extra virgin olive oil, the brainchild of Italian filmmaker Armando Manni.  The oil, which sells for roughly $10 per ounce, with a minimum order of ten 3-ounce bottles, is made from made from Olivastra Seggianese olives harvested on Monte Amiata in Tuscan.  I suspect Manni’s is the only commercial olive oil developed, as the twenty-page brochure puts it, “in the context of a scientific research project in collaboration with the Department of Pharmaceutical Science, University of Florence, Italy.”  The result of this collaboration is an oil that claims to have much higher levels of antioxidants than other high quality olive oils.  But is Manni extra virgin olive oil truly the best in the world, as famed French Laundry chef Thomas Keller claims in the package insert and on the company’s website? 

I’m not sure I’ll ever know enough to know.  I have had a complex relationship with high-end olive oil:  I love to eat it drizzled on salads, steamed or roasted vegetables.  I use it in place of butter on popcorn. I splash it in soup, and for dessert, I’ve served an olive oil cake, and even Amanda Hesser’s decadent Chocolate Toasts (recipe follows).  But, as with wine, I’m not sure I have much of a palate.  I know what I like when I taste it, but is that enough?
A couple of years ago, I decided to try to educate my taste buds by (oh, the shame) joining an olive oil club.  (Never let it be said that there isn’t something for everyone in this world.)  David Rosengarten, chef, writer and foodie, will send you three 250 ml bottles of extra virgin olive oil every four months for $68.95, plus shipping. He selects his oils from different producers around the world, mixing things up in terms of country of origin and type of olive.  The only problem with this system? If you fall in love with a favorite, it can be hard to find it again.  I spent weeks tracking down the importer of an unusual Australian oil, only to learn that the Rosengarten selection was a custom blend, no longer available. 

Here in the Berkshires, though, I’ve found two dependable sources for superior oils.  When I asked Matt Rubiner, the owner of Rubiner’s Cheesemongers in Great Barrington, for a recommendation from his shop’s wide selection.  he directed me to a bottle produced by Al Frantoio di Aldo Armato ($44.95 for 1 liter.)  Imported by Rosenthal Wine Merchant in New York (whose principal, Neal Rosenthal, as it happens, also imports many of my favorite wines) this oil is smooth throughout, with a fruity fragrance, and a pleasantly bitter finish.  The smooth quality is characteristic of olive oils, like Aldo Armato, produced in Liguria, in western Italy.  Aldo Armato uses the traditional olive press, with stone wheels that extract the oil—which is, after all, the juice of the olive. (For a window into the production of Aldo Armato, there’s a lovely slideshow online.)

Francois Bizalion, owner of eponymous Bizalion’s Fine Food in Great Barrington, might gently suggest that I am making the whole olive oil question much too complicated.  It’s simple, according to Bizalion: What people need to do with olive oil, as with wine, is to taste it.  Freshness is paramount, and flavor, as with wine, is heavily influenced by terroir, the elusive relationship between growing conditions and eventual crop.  To help those of us insecure in our olive oil knowledge, he’s come up with the perfect solution.

In his Great Barrington shop and cafe, one window is dominated by tall steel jars, each holding a different olive oil, all selected by Bizalion.  They are labeled by region of origin (and the range is broad, including Lebanese, Greek and Turkish options) and by dominant flavor: buttery, peppery or (my favorite) fruity.  Each oil is also labeled with suggested uses: The buttery Pons oil from Catalonia (the one Bizalion uses in the cafe) is perfect for making vinaigrettes.  My favorite, the fruitier Barbara Estate oil, from Sicily, suits fish and white meat, and would also pair nicely with a spicy green like arugula.  A peppery oil, like the Umbrian Spelio, works well with red meat or might be stirred into soups or stews to add richness and spice.  You can taste each oil—small cups are provided—and bottle your selection yourself in large or small bottles.  At around $12 for a 750 ml bottle, the oils are a bargain compared to all but low-end supermarket brands, and the flavors are both varied and outstanding.  Bizalion says he goes through more than 2000 gallons of oil a year between retail sales and what he uses cooking in the cafe, and he assures customers of freshness.  While Bizalion coyly won’t reveal his sources—all he’ll say is that he uses different importers for different oils—he will say that he is planning to expand his olive oil business.  This fall, he will begin bottling his selections for sale at other outlets under the Bizalion label.

And what about the exotic, expensive Manni?  As it happened, the night of my dinner party, I had thrown together a caprese salad: baby heirloom tomatoes from Farm Girl Farm, fresh mozzarella, basil from the garden—but I realized at the last minute that I had used up the last of my “good” olive oil the night before.  Saved by my guest’s extravagant gift, we all took turns drizzling the peridot-green oil over our servings of salad.  It was amazing: a strong succulent aroma and taste that made delicious ingredients taste even better.  Would I buy it for myself? Probably not. But if I am lucky enough to find myself at the The French Laundry or Per Se, I’ll be sure to ask for it.  And it makes an excellent gift.
Rubiner’s Cheesemongers & Grocers
264 Main Street, Great Barrington; 413.528.0488

Bizalion’s Fine Food
684 Main Street, Great Barrington; (413) 644-9988

Toasts with Chocolate and Fleur de Sel (Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s, Cooking for Mr. Latte (W.W.Norton, 2003)

1 baguette (not sourdough), sliced on the diagonal into 1/4 inch-thick slices
1-2 4 oz. bars high quality dark chocolate
extra-virgin olive oil (use the best you can)
fleur de sel or coarse sea salt (I like Maldon)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Lay the baguette slices on a baking sheet, and top each slice with a bite-sized piece of chocolate.  Slip the baking sheet into the oven, and remove it when the chocolate is melted but still holds its shape.  Quickly move the slices to a serving platter and sprinkle with a few flakes of salt, and then a few drops of olive oil. 

Makes about 25 toasts—enough for 6 to 8 people, depending upon appetite and greed. Paige Orloff







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