12 Dec

Upscale olive oil is a great gift for your favorite foodie

By Cynthia Nims,

It can be a little mind-boggling to cast your eyes over a grocery store shelf that is well stocked with olive oils and try to navigate the options. With an increasing array of olive oils available from domestic and international sources, we have a greater than ever selection to choose from, particularly among the upscale bottles that run in the $20-plus range.

Twenty bucks for a bottle of olive oil?

Yes, and prices can be double that or more.

What you’ll get from these more expensive olive oils is a depth of character – in aroma, flavor and texture – that is truly distinctive from more mainstream choices. So much so that an elegant bottle of extra-virgin oil is worth considering for gift giving this holiday season: a memorable hostess gift, a delicious present for the friend who has everything, or something indulgent for the foodie in your life.

There is definitely a place in our pantries for everyday olive oil to use for sauteing fish, marinating meats, roasting vegetables and countless other culinary applications. But every cook’s pantry also should have a bottle of luxurious extra-virgin olive oil on hand for those occasions when the more robust, more eloquent oil is called for.

The nature of upscale extra-virgin oils makes them best used as “finishing” oils, drizzled over or stirred into a dish just before serving. It’s delicious at room temperature, and you also will find that a judicious amount of heat – as from a just-grilled steak or a still-hot risotto – will emphasize the distinctive aroma and flavor of a good olive oil. But too much heat will begin to break down the flavor of an extra-virgin olive oil and you’ll lose its unique characteristics. Avoid sauteing and other direct-heat uses for the more expensive oils.

Because exposure to heat and light can degrade the quality of olive oil, it is best to store them in a cool, dark place. The oil will keep for up to a year if carefully stored. You can refrigerate olive oil as well; it may turn cloudy or solidify a bit, but will return to its natural state at room temperature.

The “extra virgin” designation for olive oil refers to oils that have the lowest acidity levels. Different olive oil-producing regions abide by different standards, though most extra-virgin olive oils will have less than 1 percent acidity. Not all bottles, even at the higher price points, will list the acidity level on the label, but you generally can count on low acidity with any extra-virgin oil.

Some bottles will specify that the oil was “cold pressed” or made from “cold extraction.” Though there isn’t formal regulation about this terminology, these are oils that were extracted from olives only by mechanical pressure, without the application of heat to boost extraction levels. This technique produces oils of naturally lower acidity and elegant flavor.

Ultimately, olive oil echoes the world of wine in some respects, and some olive oil sources may sound familiar to the wine lover. In Italy, Chianti Classico is a D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) for olive oil producers in that region. A D.O.P. reference guarantees the oil to have been made in a designated geographic area of Italy – among other established regulations for production – to assure regional integrity of the oils made there.

You’ll see the same for some French olive oils, with the A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Controllée) labeling. California is becoming an increasingly important player on the upscale olive oil scene, the California Olive Oil Council having established its own certification program for extra-virgin olive oils produced in the state.

Besides regional designations, some extra-virgin olive oil labels will note the harvest year and others may list the specific variety of olive(s) used in the oil. It’s a kind of sophistication that likely will increase in years to come, giving us yet more excuses to sample premium olive oils as they show up in stores.

The bottom line is that, yes, it is worth the splurge for one of the pricier extra-virgin olive oils on the crowded shelf. Consider that a special bottle of wine easily can run you $30 or more and typically is consumed in one sitting (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Spend the same on a top-quality extra-virgin olive oil and your investment lasts longer. Using just a few tablespoons here and there (a little goes a long way) means that you or your lucky gift recipient will be enjoying the luxurious bottle for many weeks or months to come.

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