Close your eyes and imagine a salad ripe with the flavors of summer, fresh and perfect, and ready to be devoured. Then, try to imagine the extra virgin olive oil that would go with it. You know it has to be light and delicate, yet at the same time it has to be strong enough to assert itself among the other flavors on your plate, and to make your salad taste experience complete. You know the basics, but that’s not all. How can you turn this oil – this figment of your imagination – into something real, something which can be enjoyed by many, something authentic, which represents your values and stands the test of time?
You may think these are way too many questions. After all, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is just another kind of oil, right? The makers of Zucchi extra virgin olive oil would definitely disagree with you on this point. I reconsidered my own perception of this oil recently, when I was invited to attend an EVOO Tasting Master Class conducted at Chicago’s Quartino restaurant by Giovanni Zucchi, the blend master behind an Italian company with three centuries of tradition and experience in the field: Oleificio Zucchi.
This event was part of Flavor Your Life, a long-standing EU campaign whose aim is to educate consumers worldwide on the benefits of cooking with extra virgin olive oil. In addition to explaining the flavor differences among oils produced in various European regions and to providing tips on how to use and to store this oil, the evening focused on the art of EVOO blending, in which Zucchi excels.
Extra virgin olive oil blends are created by skillfully combining oils from different types of olive trees (cultivars) and regions in order to create unique aromas and tastes. The time of harvest also impacts the flavor of the oil: olives harvested early in the season (which typically starts in late August) produce greener, more bitter and pungent oils than those harvested at the end of the season (late November to December), which tend to taste mild and buttery. So, how do you create harmonious flavor combinations out of a big discordant puzzle of trees, regions and harvesting times? This is where the role of EVOO blend masters becomes clear.
My fellow blogger Marina and I had never attended an EVOO blending class before, and we came with an open mind and high expectations. In front of each participant were 4 small bottles labeled A, B, C and D, which contained extra virgin olive oil samples from different regions, and thus with different flavor profiles. Blend master Giovanni Zucchi began by explaining the fundamentals of olive oil blending, as a creative enterprise and as a business venture.
Next came the EVOO tasting test itself. We tried the 4 samples one by one, under the Zucchi blend masters’ guidance. The first step involved pouring oil in a small glass and warming the glass (and thus the oil in it) with our hands. The second step involved smelling the warm oil and describing its aroma: Did it smell of delicate apples, of pungent grass – or maybe of almond? Then came the third part, when you had to put a bit of oil in your mouth and then rapidly suck air through your teeth. This procedure allowed us to distinguish the most subtle flavors of the oil, which we then discussed with the blend masters.
We were then encouraged to think of dishes we enjoy (I picked summer salad) and to create our own EVOO blend to use in those dishes. I really liked oil A, which had been produced using olives from the Calabria region of Southern Italy, so I used this sample as the dominant element of my blend. I was also impressed with the strong flavor and aroma of oil B, made out of olives from the Greek island of Crete, so I used this one as well. Lastly, for another hint of subtle flavors, I picked oil C, which was a mix of three cultivars from Southern Italy.
The evening could not be complete without a dinner of authentic Italian dishes, and the menu created by Quartino’s Chef John Coletta was a real joy. From the assorted salumi and olives to the radicchio, rucola and endive salad, from the charred bell peppers with capers and EVOO (one of our household’s all-time favorites!) to the ravioli filled with braised pork, speck and fava beans and to the salmon – all the dishes were fresh, flavorful and glorious. A special mention must go to the tiramisu – so light, so exquisite!
Enchanted by the passion and dedication of the Zucchi blend masters, I went home and couldn’t wait to make the summer salad I had imagined for my EVOO blend. The initial plan included bocconcini; unfortunately, the bocconcini on offer at my local grocery store did not appear fresh, so in the end I had to go with feta, which actually proved to be a good pick. Green lettuce and onions, tomato medley, paprika baked chicken breast, feta and fresh oregano from our garden were seasoned with salt and pepper and generously splashed with extra virgin olive oil. It was time for the salad of my dreams and the EVOO blend of my dreams to finally come together!
Following this experience, I have gained a better understanding of the rationale behind blending different extra virgin olive oils, as well as a deep appreciation of the blend masters’ work. As a “kind of magic” (as Giovanni Zucchi called it) and an ongoing search for perfection, the process of blending extra virgin olive oils has provided me with new information and exciting avenues to further explore in my culinary adventures. To paraphrase a famous Latin dictum: I came, I saw, I learnt 🙂
*Disclaimer: I was not financially compensated by Oleificio Zucchi for this post. All opinions expressed here are my own.