It was an opportunity a friend and I just couldn’t pass up.
The creative, hard-working culinary team at Napa’s Oenotri had developed a menu designed to show off the exceptional flavors of freshly pressed olive oil.
Including desserts, chef/partners Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde, along with pastry chef Jen Archer, were plating nearly two dozen dishes that played off the fruity, spicy flavors of newly pressed olive oils — oils that came from Spain, Italy, Portugal and California. The “nuovo olio” menu was offered to Oenotri diners five nights last week.
We all know that pressing tree-ripened olives extracts a very flavorful, monounsaturated oil that is prized throughout the world both for cooking — especially in Mediterranean countries — and finishing dishes, such as salads. The marketplace today provides us with a wide variety of olive oils, coming domestically, for the most part, from California, as well as Italy, Spain, Greece and France.
The flavor, color and fragrance of olive oils can vary dramatically depending on such distinctions as where the olives come from and how the crop is harvested and pressed. All olive oils are graded in accordance with the degree of acidity they contain.
Extra virgin olive oil, which is what our friends at Oenotri featured in last week’s menu, is the cold-pressed result of the first pressing of the olives, and is only 1 percent acid. It’s considered the finest and fruitiest of the olive oils, hence, the most expensive. It can range from the color of Champagne to greenish-golden to bright green. Generally, the deeper the color, the more intense the olive flavor.
What Di Fede and Rodde proved with their noble dinnertime experiment was that the new, or just-pressed, olive oils offer the most intense flavors and aromas of all, as well as adding complexity to just about every menu offering.
Those who dropped by Oenotri last week readily learned just how much a fantastic olive oil brings to a finished dish.
For example, a braised squid appetizer combined a bit of tomato with small chunks of fingerling potatoes and a “maionese” consisting of squid ink and freshly pressed Cobresoba olive oil from Cordoba, Spain. The oil gave a slightly sweet edge to the mayonnaise and helped tie this hearty dish together. It was a wonderful blend of surf and turf.
An even simpler antipasto — said to be Italian chef/cookbook author Marcella Hazan’s favorite — featured teeny, tiny crumbles of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on crostone, liberally drizzled with hojiblanca oil. Biting into the toasted bread, the tangy, rich cheese was accented by the slightly sweet oil, and the oil’s almond aftertaste provided yet added complexity to the overall flavor of the dish.
The snail-shaped lumache (Italian for “snails”) were made by mixing a puree of wild nettles into the flour. Di Fede uses the leaves of this herbaceous perennial in a number of his pasta recipes throughout the year. This time around, the pasta was tossed with a pumpkin puree along with small chunks of oven-roasted Delicata squash and hazelnuts. The dish was finished with a picual olive oil that had been pressed only four days earlier in Spain and flown into the Bay Area. The fresh, green, fruity flavor and slightly bitter finish underscored the creamy texture of the dish and pointed up the herbaceousness of the pasta’s flavoring ingredient.
The French call lovage “false celery,” as the stalks do have a strong celery taste. Di Fede used lovage in his pasta preparation for leganari, flavorful green triangles tossed with flageolet beans, a little lardo and freshly pressed arbequina olive oil. My favorite olive, the arbequina produces a dense, quite flavorful oil tasting of orchard fruits. This oil is best used uncooked, since its aromatic substances are very volatile. It is a fresh oil that combines perfectly with vegetables, fresh or cooked, and grilled fish. Here, it punched up the underlying flavor of lovage and paired perfectly with the creamy beans. A home run.
While I wasn’t all that impressed with the olive oil gelato, pastry chef Jen Archer’s chocolate hazelnut torte, served with several drizzles of olive oil, proved another slam dunk.
This dining experience got me to thinking about incorporating more olive oil into my diet. The antioxidants olive oil contains, particularly in varieties like picual, contribute to the healthy diet. What’s more, they add complexity to any number of dishes, as the special menu at Oenotri clearly demonstrated.
This was just the first in a series of themed dinners Oenotri is planning this winter and next spring. If what’s to come is as cutting-edge and delicious as the “nuovo olio” menu, we’re in for more treats. Stay tuned.