Steve Jenkins is exultant. "I landed it for five bucks a bottle!"
After 6 harrowing years of International hustle and heartbreak, the self proclaimed Rock Star of Olive Oil has finally brought his plunder home. Liquid sun fills the Fairway bottle he victoriously holds aloft: a robust Baena from Andalucía. It's identical to the oil produced for six generations by Spain's celebrated Nuez de Prado family.
"I won't buy it from them." Jenkins pauses for effect. “The importer is a robber."
He offers a sip. The ride starts smoothly enough on the tip of my tongue. By the time the oil reaches the back of my throat, I'm on a roller coaster through a fruit orchard. Jenkins grins, "Love that finish."
Steve doesn't just love, he ravishes olive oil. Indeed, he's more of a curator than a retailer, offering over 100 different varieties of olive oil on his shelves, priced from 10 dollars a liter to over 40. For the past decade, Fairway's legendary grocer/explorer/buyer has been foraging the groves of the Mediterranean basin all around, trudging its hills and climibing its 400 year old trees, consumed by his quest for the planet's finest olives and oils.
He has also wheeled, dealed, and outwitted the industry, from its best importers to its worst thieves. All to take his ravishing women home. "Some of them Sabine!" he adds, referring to those pressed from the highly venerated groves near Rome
Steve Jenkins unabashedly claims to know more about olive oil than anyone else on the face of the globe. He personally writes the label for the 14 Fairway house oils. In a passionate paragraph, Jenkiins romances her origin, date of harvest and pressing, the method of extraction, the distinctive allure of her kiss, and with whom she dances and does not.
I ask him what most people probably don't know about EVO. There's so much. Especially for his new Connecticut customers. But we stop at 10.
1. EVO is the most essential ingredient in the kitchen. Steve divides gastronomy by the three fats used in cooking: butter, lard, or oil. Fat does more than keep stuff from sticking to the pan. It serves as a transmitter between the food and the brain, translating food molecules into taste sensations for the taste centers to differentiate, savor, and later crave. Steve contends olive oil is the healthiest and most versatile fat transmitter because it's not animal based and enjoys far more flavor and character than the vegetable oils. He insists "serious olive oil in your kitchen, as opposed to stale, ill-crafted, ill-chosen oil, is the one ingredient that will make an immediate, palpable, joyful difference in the flavor and aroma of the food you cook and dress."
2. Clouds with silver linings. Most customers hold a bottle to the light, checking for clarity and color. They believe clear and green promise quality. Instead, Steve looks for cloudy. That mist indicates the oil has not been filtered, thus retaining its "pithiness." As for color, olive oil can range from green to light gold -- depending on when the olives were harvested. The Baena showed a cloudy, chartreuse yellow. A brooding late season thunderstorm ready to strike.
3. The three olive oils every cook needs. Most pantries include a cheap oil for cooking and an expensive variety for everything else. Steve recommends three. First a gentle "suave" dressing oil such as an Arbequina for salads, sauteing seafood, or making mayonnaise. Contrapuntally, Jenkins suggests an assertive finishing oil like the Baena, with a strong presence and "incipient bitterness" (derived from the early harvest of green olives). With a peppery finish, it drizzles well on a charred steak, augments a bold salad, or works sorcery in a marinade or baste. His third choice: a mid-range cooking oil that is fruity and good tasting, like the Fairway label Italian EVOO or the Andalucian Arteoliva in the Tetra-Prizm carton. They brandish enough flavors to sauté a sofritto or sweat onions without overpowering them. Choose cheap, so you're not burning money in a fry pan.
4 How to make a Virgin. Virgin oil derives from olive juice that is mechanically, not chemically, extracted. It is either physically pressed, the old fashion way, or centrifuged, the modern technique that works on the same principle as a lettuce spinner. To qualify as an Extra Virgin, the oil makers didn't practice additional abstinence, but acheived lower acidity. The less acid, the extra the virginity. But too little acidity may not be a virtue...
5. When Extra may not be so Extra. Traditionally, the lesser the acidity the better the taste. Based on recent research, Jenkins now believes that too little acidity is counterproductive. He claims that less than 1% acidity, once thought to be excellent, actually may rob the oil of taste and bouquet, since both are enhanced through some oxidation.
6.Tuscan is not the Best in Show. Jenkins insists that many Italian, French and California oils are overhyped and under whelming. The best oils are a result of the care with which the olives have been grown, picked, handled, and pressed, wherever that takes place. Even region means little. Exhibit A: Tuscany. The oils from one grove to another can be wildly inconsistent. After all, it's not Italy, Greece or France that produces the most olive oil. It's Spain. Like its cheeses, wines and cuisine, Spanish oils have finally been recognized as some of the finest in Europe.
7. Most customers overpay. Because of the hype, French and Italian importers charge an insane premium for a Tuscan or a fancy French oil. Even Fairway's own barrel-imported French and Italian boast prices between 20 and 30 dollars a bottle because sellers overcharge. For the best bang for the buck, Steve recommends Gata-Hurdes from Spain's Extremadura, Catalan Arbequina, the Baena from Andalucia, or Australian Victoria Picual.
8. Unlike Wine, Oil doesn't get better with age. Because Evo's four enemies are time, light, heat, and air, bottles should be stored in a cool, dark place. After any pour, quickly recork or rescrew, and return the bottle to its cave. After a year any oil should probably be tossed. Incidentally, the greener the oil, the more chlorophyll it contains, and the faster it will grow rancid if exposed to light.
9. Farenheit 375. It's not the temperature at which Bradbury claimed books burned, but EVO's smoke point, when it begins to release carcinogens into the air and lend a bitter taste to the cooking food. While most frying doesn't reach that critical temperature, for high heat work such as charring steak in a white hot iron skillet, use oil with a higher smoke point, like grapeseed.
10. Olive Oil for Dessert. Steve is proud that American cooks are finally experimenting with olive oil in sweet dishes, not just savories. They bake olive oil cakes, grill fruits like Pineapple and Watermelon wiped with EVO, or dress a summer fruit salad with a gentle oil. It's even become a popular ingredient in desserts like olive oil ice cream, sprinkled with salt.
Jenkins sums it up. “Olive oil is a panacea. A (expletive deleated) miracle.”
The Fairway Baena is now available at the oil sampling station of the Stamford store. You can taste its unique fruit and pepper finish while reading Steve Jenkins' ode to a fiery senorita.
[Photography Credits: Portrait by Maria Bacarella; Olive oil photos by Elizabeth Dorney]