“Warm the olive oil in your hand,” Alfonso, a tall, thin Spaniard from Cordoba says as he twirls a wine glass with a small amount of a greenish liquid in the bottom.
“When you can’t feel the difference between the glass and your hand, it’s warm enough,” Marco Petrini, an olive oil expert from Italy adds.
Alfonso Fernández López is a 5th generation olive oil producer and founder of Sabor de España, a trader of fine Spanish foods. He’s one of the participants in the seminar by the brevity-challenged Consortium to Guarantee Quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil (CEQ Italia) and QVExtra International, being delivered at the International Culinary Center in New York City. He continues, perhaps less alluringly than he thinks: “push the olive oil through your teeth, make this sound,” he demonstrates a push with your tongue through your teeth, like a toddler might do if they didn’t like something in their mouth.
“If you’re too shy to make that sound just hold the olive oil in your mouth for twenty seconds let the taste surround your tongue and mouth,” he suggests alternatively.
Later Alfonso confesses “I’m in love with olive oil,” kneeling down near my table to ask how I like the dinner the Consortium has prepared for about 50 diners, including food influencers, bloggers, journalists and guests, with olive oil in almost every bite of the several course meal.
Olive trees live for hundreds of years and there are hundreds of varieties of olives. Olive trees have been around for thousands of years. I was raised on El Toro Spanish olive oil, there was always a gallon can, orange and white with black lettering, stored underneath the kitchen counter, exactly where Natalia Ravida, a lovely olive oil producer from the consortium tells us it should be stored, in a dark and cool place.
Marco, who now lives in the US and is one of the representatives of the consortium tells us, “Greeks consume the most olive oil, with Spaniards and Italians next, Americans consume the least amount.” I don’t count myself in the American group — although not a full-blooded Italian, feet planted on American soil my entire life, an Italian-American father raised me. His father was born in Canna, Calabria. I bet there was some olive growing somewhere in my history.
I hear about other oils and their benefits — avocado, coconut — but I can’t forsake olive oil. I can’t betray it. It has been too good to me.
I am steadfast, loyal, maybe, a bit like Alfonso, in love with olive oil. It represents family, ancestry, a little bit of home: long wooden Christmas Eve tables with a spread of Italian delicacies, a tiny Italian grandmother with a huge talent for cooking.
Here at the festival we sip olive oil like it’s the finest Barolo. We warm it in our hands following along with Alfonso, Marco and Natalia’s example. We push it through our teeth not ashamed to make that sound, and then ruminate on the fragrance, the perfume, and the flavor.
“I can smell banana!” Alfonso declares. “Banana and a slight smell of grass,” he continues.
Banana? I’m as baffled by that as I am when coffee roasters tell me –“you can taste the chocolate and the cherry, can’t you?” No, I can’t. I taste coffee. And here in the auditorium at the International Culinary Center I smell olive oil not banana.
I go along for the ride while Alfonso speaks poetically about olive oil. I try my hardest to smell banana, inhaling the tiny plastic cup till it’s almost inside my nostrils.
When the representatives of the consortium ask for a raise of hands of those who have picked olives, not a hand goes up. “Invite us,” I say.
Marco extends an invitation, “you’re invited,” he says. “Come anytime.”
At the dinner I ask Natalia, “can I really come and pick olives in Sicily?” She opens her delicate hands, “You’ll pick two and then you’ll be done,” she says. “We don’t have the hands for it.”
I still want to try. I owe olive oil a few weeks of hard labor after all it’s done for me. Leeann Lavin, my brilliant and charming cousin, in charge of public relations for the consortium, tells me that her group of olive oil producers had hearty appetites. They poured olive oil on everything. “I asked how they all stay so slim? ‘Olive oil!’ they said.”
Maybe the consortium representatives will start the latest craze — the olive oil diet! But that’s not what they are after. Europeans have a greater sense of heritage than Americans, they stick by what their ancestors did — if it did right by them it will do right by me, they reason.
They believe in the oil. And with good reason, it’s full of Vitamin E, Vitamin K. Omega 6, Omega 3, and lots of antioxidants; these substances can help fight disease. Extra virgin olive oil contains anti-inflammatory compounds, including oleic acid, the most prominent fatty acid in the oil. Inflammation is one of the leading causes of many diseases including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and arthritis.
But let’s be clear, this is extra virgin olive oil we’re talking about. Regular, light or refined olive oil is extracted with solvents, treated with heat and can be diluted with cheaper oils, so only extra virgin olive oil has all the health benefits.
So now you know.