Saturday, November 27, 2004

Striking Oil

You never know when "ingredient inspiration" will strike. Or what will trigger it.

One sunny day in southern California, I was contentedly reading Frances Mayes' wonderful and inspiring book Under the Tuscan Sun. As you probably already know, this book describes the series of discoveries that came her way as she undertook the purchase and renovation of a home in the hills near Cortona, Italy. As I read the true story that sunny day, and each time that I have re-read it, I too was surrounded with a feeling of discovery. For, like all true cooks, Ms. Mayes found that the joy of her new location often focused on the gathering and preparing of wonderful new foods. Her descriptions of the experience would send even the most jaded taste buds into overdrive!

As I read her description about her first year's harvest of olives, the crushing of them and the bottling of her own, homegrown extra virgin olive oil, my inspiration began to take hold. Olive oil, it was becoming clear, had a unique personality, just like wine. Growing conditions, weather conditions during harvest and crushing method are all strong influences on the character of the oil. And each proud grower, whether harvesting a private crop of olives or producing a mega-crop for retail distribution, awaits with great anticipation and trepidation the verdict on the quality of the year's efforts.

Ms. Mayes described a Cortona festival, at which nine different oils -- from nine different growers -- were tasted as an afternoon's event. All were available, with bread for accompaniment, in the town's Piazza. She described how she and her husband were awestruck by the entire concept of the event. And then, in lovely detail, her words turned poetic and linked the flavor components of the oils, when tasted, to the area's hot winds of summer, first rains of autumn, sunlight on leaves. I couldn't wait to turn my attention to searching out new olive oils on my own, settling down to taste them and letting the wonderful essences work poetic wonders on my own palette!

My first selections, for my own private tasting festival, have now faded into memory. But, the astonishing realization of their differences in flavor has influenced my cooking ever since that day. I no longer trudge to my cupboard, haul out "the" (one and only) bottle of olive oil waiting there and perfunctorily splash a bit of it into a pan before cooking. No, not since my own personal "striking oil" inspiration. Now, olive oil is an integral element of my cooking. It is used to enhance and develop the flavors of a dish, to add just the right touch of spicy bite or the combining element of smooth richness that is needed to draw together the other ingredients in a dish.

As is so often true in cooking, the simple, straightforward uses of wonderful ingredients are often the best. This thought races through my mind each time that I take a piece of bread, dribble on some rich, flavorful olive oil and rub a freshly-halved clove of garlic over the oiled bread. Food of the gods, with a little help from serious olive growers all over the world!

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