One of the phenomena that arose from the globally popular Food Network and Cooking Channel is the increased demand for specialty ingredients. Artisanal meats and cheeses are now widely available as folks try to replicate gourmet meals at home. One such ingredient is olive oil. Even if you’re not a Rachael Ray fan, her love for extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is well known. Just like everything else, how do you know you’ve got the best in your pantry? In this episode of From Spain With Love, we were treated to a whirlwind lesson on olive oil: its varieties and uses. Let’s dive into Aceite de Oliva: 101!
The first lesson starts with the olive itself in Andalusia, the world’s largest producer of olive oil. Our host, Annie Sibonney met with olive oil royalty at Castillo de Canena, Jaen. Señorita Rosa Vañó welcomed our host at the beautiful medieval castle, before they set out to meet her father señor Luis in the Guadalvivir valley; where their family’s olive orchard has been flourishing for two hundred years. Like his daughter, the charming country gentleman spoke excellent English. He described not only how the olives are harvested but their chemical components and health benefits. The vista was stunning. We could see trees going on for miles and miles on the valley floor, like fluffy green dots in the distance.
With freshly picked, or rather tickled olives in hand, they returned to the castle for them to be pressed in a mill. You can’t get olive oil much more virginal than what flowed into the pitcher. Before they used it to cook, Annie was given a chance to taste the three varieties. This may seem odd but quality olive oil actually has different flavours. Mass produced olive oil doesn’t have any taste to write home about. First was Arbequina, the most subtly flavoured; then Royal which had a hint of banana and nuttiness. Finally, she tasted the Picual which can affect the entire flavour structure of a dish. Now it was time to put the oils to use in an Asparagus and Artichoke Salad. Señorita Rosa and Annie made a typical Mediterranean pesto but with a Spanish flair, thanks to the Vañó family olive oil. With the starter complete, the ladies made a Spiced Pork Sirloin. Oh yes, pork! Where was I? The dish looked lovely with veggies on the side. In the stately dining hall, our teachers sat to eat. Castillo de Canena is now on my arm-long list of places to visit in Spain.
The next segment was in Petrer, Alicante; and all about alioli. Believe me when I say, this isn’t your mama’s mayonnaise. At La Sirena, self-taught alioli expert Chef Mari Carmen Vélez treated Annie to a small sample of the one hundred and twenty different types of alioli served at her family’s restaurant. Enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge of aliolis, Chef Mari was a classic example of a person who loves to cook. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to find out that she teaches as well. After preparing a Salsa Alioli (Garlic Mayonnaise), that topped confit potatoes; Chef Mari made tomato alioli which was baked onto confit cod. The garlic alioli was used once again, as a dip for fried fish and calamari. Annie unconsciously popped a piece into her mouth. I quite understood the feeling, since I found myself nursing a hunger pang from watching the episode thus far. We said goodbye to the delightful Chef Mari at the table before moving along to Toledo, outside of Madrid. There Annie had a delicious Saffron and Olive Oil Risotto at the restaurant Casa Adolfo. The father/son team of Adolfo and Javier Muñoz warmly welcomed our presenter into their kitchen. Just like that, we were back in Alicanteto visit a familiar spot, La Taberna Del Gourmet, first seen in Paella: Tradition in a Pan.
Since we had just seen a dish that paired saffron and olive oil, it was only appropriate that From Spain With Love veteran, Chef Maria José San Roman, Spain’s authority on gastronomy with saffron put in her two cents. Or in this case, three recipes! I like to call her, La Doctora because of her scientific techniques to use the precious spice. The first dish was Olive Oil Marinated Chicken. Picual was used for the marinade and also to cook the bird with veggies. Next was Ajo Blanco, a cold soup that used savoury Hojiblanca olive oil. Finally was a dish that easily caused the greatest excitement on the show’s Facebook page among viewers: Olive Oil Ice Cream. It was a fascinating concoction that had no cream whatsoever. However, it did have Arbequina olive oil. Sweet, creamy and lustrous, this dessert proved how versatile this liquid gold can be, especially under a skilful hand. Ham drizzled in olive oil even filled the role of starter, as the ladies sat down to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
The last stop on our olive oil odyssey was something of a pilgrimage in Alicante, to the huge kitchen of master pastry chef and chocolatier, Paco Torreblanco in Elda. He blew our collective minds with two creations that utilised Arbequina olive oil. First, Olive Oil Bonbons that were designed to look like almonds. Then, Silver Oysters where he flawlessly replicated an oyster shell. In the ‘shell’ saffron cream, Arbequina olive oil, chocolate caviar, milk foam and an edible vodka-filled pearl were carefully placed. The final piece of the illusion was a Panettone (Sweet Bread) fashioned to look like a rock from the sea floor. To list this dessert’s components is not intended to reveal its secrets but encourage any and every one to try it, if possible. Once again, we were treated to a gem of an episode in this series. If nothing else, we will never take our olive oil for granted ever again. Or maybe, we’ll be more pernickety about the kinds we use. I certainly learned a lot and feel inspired to try out some recipes. Class dismissed. The next episode is A Taste of Southern Spain.