25 May

For the love of olive oil

Claudia Pharand spreads olive oil on her toast for breakfast. Sometimes she adds homemade jam or maple syrup. She cooks fish and vegetables with olive oil, whips it into a mean béchamel sauce, even uses it on her skin and hair for that extra healthy glow. She goes through one litre of the viscous green a month, and has 15 bottles at home in her cupboard.Pharand is the oil-obsessed co-owner, with Danièle Beauchamp, of Olive & Olives, the olive oil and specialty goods store on the village-green stretch of Laurier west of Papineau.

The trim blonde with a steady gaze is from Sudbury, the youngest of 10 kids. After a stint in Ottawa for university, she went to Germany, then settled in Montreal. She worked in communications and marketing, but her holidays in Spain changed everything.

Already a wine collector with a keen awareness of terroir (how the characteristics of a land can affect the taste of an agricultural product), she began bringing back bottles of locally produced olive oils also. After a particularly lovely day touring an olive grove and learning that Spain is the largest producer of olives, she had an epiphany. Why not buy directly from the producer and import to Montreal?

Much reading and research ensued, and finally Olive & Olives opened in 2003. The top-notch staff easily spends 20 minutes with clients, doling out tastings and education. Pharand likens oil converts to those who, once spending $15 or more on wine, can’t go back to bulk plonk.

Olive oil possibilities range

far beyond salad. Pharand has tasted pistachio/olive-oil ice cream in Córdoba, and has a recipe for olive oil jelly. Despite popular belief, it can be heated up for deep-frying – Spain’s experimental chef Ferran Adrià does just that to sardines and serves them wrapped in blue cotton candy.

For extra virgin oil, olives are picked and pressed the same day. Traditionally, presses layered crushed olives between stacked “carpachos,” or straw rounds. Today’s enclosed machines minimize oxidation, and are temperature-controlled at no more than 28 degrees Celsius – enough heat to maximize the liquid yield, not enough to damage the flavourful polyphenols. According to European Community standards, extra virgin can’t exceed 0.8 per cent acid content and must score at least 6.5 on an organoleptic (smell and taste) scale.

Sadly, charlatanism is rampant in the bucolic world of olive oil. In the States, expert testing showed that many supermarket “extra virgin” oils are greasy hoaxes, little more than gussied up soy.

When buying a bottle, go for extra virgin, note the best-by date, and make sure it’s produced – not just bottled – by a company. If their name is on it as producers, they’re more likely to show pride and responsibility in their oil, Pharand notes.

Three traits to be aware of when tasting oil: the aroma in the nose, the bitterness in the sides of the mouth, the peppery catch in the throat. With a bit of concentration, you can taste notes like banana, tomato leaf, hay or grapefruit.

Right now, Pharand and Beauchamp are busy with their olive mini-empire. They expanded to St-Lambert and joined forces with the spicy de Vienne family to open Olives & Épices in the Jean-Talon Market (see “Pepper” story). They hold tastings and workshops, and recently arranged an event at Casa Tapas at which Torres winemakers introduced their line of olive oil. Pharand travels to Spain at least once a year, and hopes to go to Greece, Argentina and Chile soon.

But she dreams of owning an olive grove in sunny Andalusia. Give her about 15 years, she says. “When I retire, it’ll be under an olive tree.”

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