My introduction to unfiltered EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) happened at a charming, elegant specialty food store in Chester, New Jersey, which, for a space no bigger than a walk-in-closet, held an impressive range of condiments imported from Sicily, tastefully and proudly displayed.
The olive oil shelf featured a cornucopia of offerings, most of them labeled in Italian. Seeing that I struggled with interpretation, the woman who I presumed to be the owner of the shop, pointed to small muddy bottle which I had passed over.
“Take that one,” she said. Her thick regional accent convinced me that she knew what she was talking about.
Up until then I wasn’t particularly fussy about olive oil, only following general rules on color (green, not yellow), harvesting (first cold pressed) and size-to-price ratio (smaller, more expensive bottle will probably beat a larger less expensive one in taste.)
I presumed all olive oil was extra virgin until some of the industry’s dirty secrets were exposed in Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, among other sources.
I didn’t quite expect that filtered olive oil which I’ve always used – more commonly referred to as “processed” or “refined” – to be so dramatically different from the unfiltered variety, referred to by artisanal makers as “racked,” “clarified” or “decanted.”
Noticeably cloudier in color and grassier in its aroma, unfiltered extra virgin olive oil contains particles of live fruit from earliest harvest, giving it a more multilayered texture, sort of like pulp in orange juice.
Because olive particles ferment over time, unfiltered EVOO is thought to have a shorter shelf life. And while most agree that unfiltered EVOO has a more robust flavor, the health benefits in contrast to the processed, industrial variety are unclear.
But the taste is unmistakable, transforming dressings for salads, ordinary fresh, grilled or roasted vegetables into something sublime.
Used as a finishing, unfiltered EVOO will also enhance dips (most notably, hummus), soups, and pasta sauces. The challenge is to find it at local grocery stores and supermarkets.
It is most accessible in price and availability at Whole Foods, which introduced Italian and California varieties under its private label, 365 Everyday Value, in 2010. I couldn’t find Trader Joe’s Unfiltered California Estate Olive Oil at my local store, though you can buy it at Amazon for $13.99.
For more artisanal variety try San Giuliano at Eataly (sold in the Manhattan store only), or choose from a exotic array of options at SaratogaOliveOil.com (they’ll pair it up with equally flavorful vinegars) or the jewel of the West Coast, O Olive Oil of Petaluma, California.
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