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Buying Olive Oil?

Read This First

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page F01

Three chefs were sitting at the kitchen table at RistoranteTosca recently, comparing bottles.

"Aromatic, more complex," said Jose Andres. "Very flowery," said Ris Lacoste. "A better color," said Cesare Lanfranconi.

Jose Andres, far right, Cesare Lanfranconi and Ris Lacoste ponder an olive oil at a recent tasting. Three of the components the tasting panel of chefs assessed were color, aroma and flavor. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

_____On the Label_____
What to Look For
Graphic: Olive Oil Taste Test
Where You Can Taste

WHERE YOU CAN TASTE:Williams-Sonoma: Most stores have oils displayed for sampling daily.

Dean & Deluca: Sampling available on weekends (3276 M St. NW; 202-342-2500).

Sur La Table: Sampling available daily

Balducci's: Occasionally. When the stores have sales, or a change of season, or bring in a new brand or style of oil, they will have bottles open for sampling.

Bella Italia: Sampling available on a daily basis (4844 Bethesda Ave.; 301-654-2667)

Creme de la Creme: Sampling available on a daily basis (4828 MacArthur Blvd. NW; 202-333-7773)

Harris Teeter: Samples of a variety of olive oils are available daily at the La Brea bread kiosk.

-- Terri Sapienza

The language sounds familiar to anybody who's ever been to a wine tasting. But in this case, the liquid was olive oil.

It's a good time of year to taste olive oils: Olives are harvested in the late fall and early winter. The oils that emerge are now making their way into gourmet food stores and some supermarkets.

Olive oils are a lot like wines. The olives that spawn them come in many varieties and reflect qualities determined by the land, sun and water where they grow. The oils are sold at vastly different prices. And there are some you wouldn't want to taste on their own that are perfectly serviceable for cooking.

With the growing focus on olive oil as a healthful fat, the increasing availablility of a wide variety of oils, and the new opportunities to taste them at stores and markets, we invited three well known area chefs to educate us on what to look for. Olive oil labels contain quite a bit of information, but not necessarily one of the most important pieces -- the age of the oil. The government does not require that olive oils state when the oil was pressed or bottled. Those that do include that information tend to be boutique brands.

What are the specific differences among olive oils, and how do the differences affect their use? Are expensive oils worth the money? How much can the consumer tell about an olive oil simply by reading the label on the bottle? To answer these questions, we arranged an informal tasting of -- three high-priced, three midrange and three relatively inexpensive oils. The oils were not identified or presented in any particular order.

Since olive oil preferences have to do with personal taste as well as quality, we selected chefs with different culinary heritages. Lanfranconi (executive chef at Tosca in downtown Washington) is from the Lake Como region of Italy. Lacoste (executive chef at 1789 in Georgetown) is from New Bedford, Mass., of French Canadian extraction. And Andres (executive chef at Jaleo in Washington, Bethesda and Crystal City; Cafe Atlantico and Zaytinya in the Penn Quarter, and Oyamel in Arlington) grew up near Barcelona in the Catalan region of Spain. We asked our tasters to consider color, aroma and taste, and then tell us what they thought.

We learned a lot.

First off, we found out that in olive oils, youth is a good thing. Oils will stay reasonably fresh for the first 12 months after bottling and be fine for another year. But after that, the flavor diminishes. So do the aroma and some of the health benefits. "After a year, the aromatics in an olive oil are gone," says Andres. "Sometimes the bottles on the shelf in the supermarket are there a lot longer than you are," he joked.

One way to prolong the life of a fresh oil is to keep it away from the light. Dark glass bottles and closed kitchen cabinets are recommended.

Color and aroma are good indicators of age. Younger oils tend to have more intense colors as well as fresher flavors and aromas. And that makes a difference in how they are best used.

Flavorful extra-virgin olive oils, for example, will enhance salads on their own or complement some already cooked foods. If you want to dress a salad simply and retain the flavor of the oil (perhaps for a mozzarella and tomato salad, where an edge of acid is provided by the tomatoes), you'll probably be happier with these oils.

But you might want a strongly flavored olive oil to finish off grilled meat or a stew -- not a flowery oil, though. Instead you would need an oil whose flavor is strong enough to stand up to the meat.

Another way our chefs liked to use some of the full-flavored oils was as an accent for mashed potatoes. "This one is perfect" for them, said Andres, tasting one of the more affordable oils. "You can taste the pepper," said Lanfranconi. "It would be a welcome component. With other oils, you'd have to add pepper."

A different situation comes into play if you're looking for an oil to use in a vinaigrette or dressing. In that case, a less-strongly flavored oil or a blend is a better choice. "There's not a lot of acid in this one," said Lacoste as she tasted one of the least expensive oils. "You wouldn't want to use it alone, but it would be fine in a light dressing or a mayonnaise."

With many full-flavored oils, the taste and aroma point to the birthplace of the olive groves from which the oil was made. Good French oils, for example, tend to be more flowery. Our chefs were even able to identify regions of France and Italy as sources of two of the oils. And the style of one oil from California made Andres think it was Spanish -- not a bad guess. "Who do you think planted the olive groves in California?" he asked.

Cooking with olive oils -- as opposed to using them on salads, or as a dipping sauce for bread or fresh vegetables or as a finishing flavor for already cooked foods -- presents different challenges. Like age, heat can destroy the flavor of olive oils, and healthful antioxidants, too. So there's no point in using fine fresh oils to saute or grill foods.

Besides, those oils tend to be expensive. Price is tricky and not necessarily an indicator of quality. Although the more costly oils in our tasting tended to get higher marks on color, aroma and taste, the chefs were pleasantly surprised to discover that one oil they liked was not only affordable but available in most supermarkets and bodegas (See chart, above for our Best Value).

If you want to try a comparative tasting of your own, follow our chefs' lead: Pour a little into a small glass. Warm the glass with your hands. Check out the aroma. Look at its color. Savor the taste on your tongue and as it goes down your throat. Dip a piece of bread or a sliced vegetable in it, too. You just might find you know more about olive oil than you realized.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company