JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
You can wash your face with it, slough your skin and condition your hair. You can fuel your car with it, keep your dog from shedding and lube your bike chain. And yes, you can cook with it.
It’s olive oil, the Superman of health food, able to leap cardiovascular disease, diabetes and high blood pressure with daily use.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week showed that a Mediterranean diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil cut heart attacks, strokes and heart disease deaths by 30 percent in its test group. The study was so conclusive, the researchers stopped it early.
“A lot of times, the medical community wants to blow off the idea that nutrition can prevent disease,” said Nicola St. Mary, a Durango naturopath. “But olive oil has such a solid backing, you can’t blow it off any more.”
From nutritionists to chefs to olive oil producers, they all give the same advice – use lots of olive oil, lots of the time.
Sautee vegetables with it (more healthful than steaming, where the nutrients evaporate), add it to smoothies, double the amount you put in red sauce, sprinkle it on fruit with lemon, pour it in soups, douse it over bread, toast nuts in it and even drink it straight. (A tablespoon a day aids digestion, three tablespoons reduces risk of heart attacks and strokes.)
Few folks know as much about extra-virgin olive oil as Peter Pizzoferrato and Anna Hollowell, a Durango couple who spend three months a year in Italy pruning olive trees, harvesting the fruit and blending the oils to produce their green, grassy, spicy extra-virgin olive oil and the smoother D.O.P. oil made from unfiltered, organic early harvest olives.
Pizzoferrato waxes poetic about the olives grown by 93-year-old Tommaso Masciantonio at the base of Maiella Mountain in Abruzzo, just 20 miles from where his grandfather grew up.
“The trees, they don’t want much,” he said. “A little pruning, a little haircut, a little water and they give back and give back and give back.”
The fidgety, 50ish Pizzoferrato sports graying close cropped hair, hipster-chic spectacles and an undying passion for the fruit of his ancestors. On a visit to his great aunt in Abruzzo, he fell in love with the olive oil he tasted in Southern Italy’s modest trattorias. He came back to Durango bearing two giant cans of the aromatic green liquid and shared it with friends and his import business was born.
He met Hollowell five years ago, and together they formed their home-based business Fresh Pressed (firstname.lastname@example.org). When they aren’t devoting themselves to producing and selling the oil, Pizzoferrato is a carpenter and homebuilder and Hollowell is a computer programmer and draftsman.
Pizzoferrato persuaded Masciantonio, his son and their neighbors to rehabilitate some of the ancient olive groves in the area and began traveling there to help harvest. Machines shake the olives into nets, and workers rake the remaining fruit from the limbs and load it into plastic baskets to be taken to the modern press. No more than 12 hours passes between harvesting and pressing, a key to the purity of flavor in their oils and tapenades.
Back in their Durango condo, decorated with deep, yellow walls, a cheetah print chaise and art from Southeast Asia where Hollowell once lived, Pizzoferrato and Hollowell show visitors happy pictures of themselves in the fields, gathering nets, climbing ladders and dining al fresco with the farmhands.
Customers often ask them which of the oils is their favorite (they also sell two beautiful Spanish olive oils), and both caution that their favorite may not be yours. Just as wines using different grapes have distinctive flavors, oils using any of the 800 varieties of olives will taste different as well.
The lesson: Taste before you buy.
“It makes your food smile,” Hollowell said.
Susan Devereaux, chef and co-owner of Guido’s Favorite Foods, smiles when she tries to conjure the thought of any dish she makes at her restaurant that doesn’t include olive oil. She arrives at just one, scallops in a cream sauce, which starts with butter rather than oil. (Trust me, it is marvelous nonetheless – just put more oil on your bread.)
The restaurant uses gallons each week of Celio extra-virgin olive oil from Naples, a light, subtle oil with a hint of butter on the finish.
Whether it’s a Bolognese sauce, a shrimp fra diavolo or a simple oil-and-pecorino cheese sauce to dress pasta, every dish begins with olive oil.
“Italian cooking, that’s what it is. That’s what you do,” says Devereaux, making a circle with her arm to imitate the motion of sprinkling olive oil in the bottom of a pan. “That’s your base of flavor.”
You need fat in cooking to give a dish oomph, she says, and nothing beats olive oil. She uses it to marinate chicken for the pollo al matone, which is cooked under a brick, she adds it to tomato puree for the house marinara and coats red peppers with it before blistering in the oven.
It’s also the finishing stroke on many of Guido’s dishes, as well, a drizzle with fresh lemon over the smoked salmon appetizer, a splash on sandwiches instead of mayonnaise, a dash over a side dish of green beans.
Noting the distinct differences in flavor, Devereaux keeps several bottles in her cupboard at once. The fresh green taste of Tuscan and Umbrian olive oils are wonderful for salad dressings and topping vegetables; the mild, buttery flavor of Ligurian and Greek oils is perfect for cooking, and the light, fruity notes of oil from Lazio (the region that encompasses Rome) are just right for topping grilled bread.
The market section of Guido’s sells a large variety of the oils to take away. (The Magni has a peppery bite true to its Tuscan origins; the Tiburtini from Lazio has a subtle grassy finish.)
If Devereaux has any advice to give home cooks looking to incorporate more of the healthful elixir into their dishes, it’s simply this: “Don’t be afraid of it. Use as much olive oil as you need to get the flavor you want.”
Your food will taste better, your diet will be healthier and your family will thank you. Your doctor will, too.
Courtesy of Peter Pizzoferrato