In “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” Nancy Harmon Jenkins explores the much-loved but frequently misunderstood staple from many perspectives. A food writer and expert on Mediterranean food, Jenkins helped introduce olive oil to the American table as the author of “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook” and promoted its use as founding director of Oldways Preservation Trust, a Boston-based nonprofit focused on improving health through traditional ways of eating. Her book is equal parts autobiography, culinary history, and cookbook with more than 100 recipes.
Jenkins splits her time between Camden, Maine, and a farm outside Cortona, in Tuscany, where she produces her own small-batch olive oil. She describes the experience of tasting oil fresh from the press as “extraordinary.” “The best comparison would be to a first taste of fresh-pressed cider. It’s an assault in some ways, in pleasant ways,” she says.
Q. When did you first discover good olive oil?
A. I lived in Spain in the ’60s and the olive oil was almost universally bad unless you grew your own. It was really when we moved to Lebanon in 1970 that I discovered that olive oil was this fabulous product that not only was delicious on its own, but it gave so much flavor to other dishes.
Q. How did you begin making your own olive oil?
A. In 1971 we bought this so-called farm in Tuscany, where there were a dozen olive trees that had been neglected for many, many years. At that time, people up in the mountains where we were didn’t pay much attention to olive oil. They used pork fat. So I kind of went along with that until I became aware that there was a lot of great olive oil. One thing led to another and I ended up planting 150 trees.
Q. Why do you say that “extra virgin” is no guarantee of quality?
A. Those standards are so loosey goosey. It’s crazy. All of those things are done in order to coddle the industry, rather than to promote excellence in olive oil. That’s what the IOC [International Olive Council, the body that establishes trade standards] is all about, promoting the industry.
Q. What are better signs of quality?
A. One of the things you’ll be seeing more and more often on labels is the date of harvest. Look for oil to be properly bottled in dark green glass. I was in a Whole Foods in Portland [Maine] and thought I would stop and see if they had any of this Chilean oil that interested me. My son and I pulled down bottles at about the same time. One was deep green in color and one was yellow. What that tells me is that the yellow oil was exposed to too much light. That is something you really have to look out for. I think people should try, as much as possible, to find places that offer tastings.
Q. What should you be looking for when you taste?
A. It should have a fresh taste. It should not feel greasy in your mouth, that’s another good indication of excellent olive oil. It should be identifiably fruity. You should be able to say it tastes like freshly cut grass, or a piece of artichoke, or like green tomato. Then you have the bitterness and the pungency. They should be in a good balance.
Q. It sounds a bit like tasting wine.
A. You’re looking for something much more controlled and specific. But you should give the same thought to selecting an olive oil as you do to selecting a wine. If you go to a shop that specializes in olive oil, find four different olive oils. Purchase the smallest quantities available and taste them one after the other. Get a Tuscan oil, an oil from Cataluna in Spain, a Greek oil, and maybe a North African or Sicilian oil.
Q. Do you have a favorite olive oil for cooking?
A. In Italy, we use last year’s oil for cooking and this year’s oil for garnishing. But that’s not easy for most people. There are any number of good California oils and Greek oils that you can buy in 3- and 5-liter containers that are very good value for money. I often recommend one that is made by Academia Barilla called 100 percent Italiano. It’s not expensive. It’s also not an oil that you would be ashamed to put on a salad.
Q. What’s a good dish that lets the taste of the oil shine through?
A. You could make a very simple tomato sauce — canned tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil; puree them and put them on pasta. That’s a great way to taste olive oil. One of simplest things you can do is just to bake a potato and pour olive oil over it.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins will talk about “Virgin Territory” and conduct an olive oil tasting on Feb. 5 at Boston University, 808 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-353-9852.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at email@example.com