Stories / Guides and Tips

Why You Should Be Buying Better Olive Oil

James Beard

February 22, 2019


Spaghetti con Aglio e Olio Photo and Styling Judy Kim
Photo and Food Styling: Judy Kim

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to the nuances and rewards of high-quality olive oil, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more!

Beard on Food: Olive Oil to Taste

Have you ever heard of an olive oil tasting? You’ve probably been to wine tastings and cheese tastings, but you have to be around Provence, or a similar olive-producing area, to know the importance of an olive oil tasting. Oils differ so much in quality, color, taste, and texture.

I was in Provence at the beginning of the year, the season when the olives are gathered from the trees in the neighborhood of Grasse, Cannes, and Opio. Not far from where I was staying was a wonderful old oil mill which must be one of the few really old ones still going. Tastes in oil have changed, and in these last few years oil has become quite different from the way it was before. Many more oils are blended, and many people have switched to oils other than olive, but to a true olive oil user and lover, which I am, there’s no joy to match that of watching the olives being crushed and then tasting the various oils that come forth.

My friends and I wanted to buy oil for the kitchen and the Provençal dishes and salads that depend for their flavor on the essence of the local olives, so one day we went to the old mill and watched the olives being pressed. The mill is run by water power, with a big wheel outside that turns the presses. These are not too big, just about six feet in diameter. There’s a large cone with a stone wheel that revolves and crushes the olives so the oil flows into the vats below. After this the oil is poured through woven jute mats that look like huge table mats, and pressed to filter it completely. The oil from the first pressing, the virgin oil that brings a premium price in stores, is of the finest quality and a beautiful, brilliant greenish gold. While oils from other pressings may have a very good flavor, they are not as high in quality. Incidentally, in some countries you will find a very green oil. Which comes from pressing some of the leaves with the fruit, to give color.

After the pressing we briefly and lightly tasted some of the oils, and I found one that was very fruity, with a superb bouquet like a great wine, and a magnificent, round, full olive taste – the type of oil I love most. I know many people who find a fruit oil rather disagreeable to their palate and prefer one that is lighter, or has been blended with a tasteless olive oil so there is only a faint hint of the characteristics of the olive, but I want the full flavor or none at all.

We came home with our prize and the first night used it for a salad made with four parts of oil to one of lemon juice and a great deal of garlic, because the local garlic is very delicate in flavor. You pound it in a mortar and add it to the dressing, and it makes a brisk, wonderful contrast to the rich fruitiness of the oil.

The dressing was tossed with curly endive, Belgian endive, and a grating of cooked beets from the local market. (The natural sweetness of the beet takes away the sharp bitterness of the greens and gives a most interesting interplay of tastes.)

If you like, you can add fresh herbs to your dressing—tarragon, chervil, and a bit of thyme are all good—but as far as I’m concerned, the excellence of the salad depends on the excellence of the oil.

This holds true with many of the dishes of the Mediterranean region such as pizza, whose flavor comes from the oil in the dough and the sauce; pissaladière, the southern French version of pizza; and ratatouille, that inspired Provençal melange of vegetables.

If you’ve never tasted one of the simplest and best of all sauces for pasta, I suggest that next time you hunger for a plate of spaghetti you try Spaghetti con Aglio e Olio—with plenty of oil and garlic. For four, cook 1 pound spaghetti in plenty of boiling salted water until just tender but still bitey—as the Italians say, al dente. While it cooks, heat 1 cup of the best olive oil until barely warm. Add 4 to 5 finely chopped garlic cloves (this may sound like a lot, but it is the garlic that makes the dish) and let them soak in the warm oil for 2 or 3 minutes. Drain the spaghetti well, and toss it with the oil, garlic, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Don’t serve cheese with this. The distinctive and complementary flavors of the oil and garlic are all you need. For another version of this dish, sauté the garlic in 4 tablespoons oil until lightly colored. Combine with 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried hot red pepper and 3/4 cup heated olive oil and toss with the cooked spaghetti.
Good olive oil isn’t hard to find. If you shop in stores that carry a big selection, get a small can or bottle to test before you buy in quantity. There are excellent Italian, French, and Spanish oils to be had. In fact, one finds better Spanish oils here than in Spain because they export their best. I have also had delicious California oils. These are harder to find than they used to be. The market is getting smaller, since so much oil is sold in bulk for other uses, but if you shop around in California, you can find some really well-flavored olive oils.
Buy your oil carefully, use it wisely, and safeguard the flavor. If you don’t use a great deal, buy in small quantities and keep the oil in a bottle with a tight cork or ground glass stopper to prevent it from becoming rancid. Never let seasonings such as garlic and herbs stand in the oil for longer than a few hours—they can also turn it rancid. I don’t consider it a good idea to refrigerate olive oil. It congeals and is not pleasant to use, although in many restaurants in Provence it is the custom to freeze tiny containers of the fruity oil and serve it thick and almost solid, along with the hors d’oeuvre. This isn’t a practice I recommend, but try it if you like, as a talking point.

Let your olive oil sing with James Beard's recipe for spaghetti con aglio e olio.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.