Saturday, 21 November 2009

Pop-eyed at olive oil

Good Italian meals, it seems, are like buses; you wait ages for one then two come along at once.  Recently, on the same day, I enjoyed lunch from the celebrated hands of Giorgio Locatelli and dinner cooked by Alessandro Traverso. 

Even the most half-hearted of foodies will know of Signor Locatelli from his Michelin-starred West End establishment, Locanda Locatelli, and his other popular restaurants.  Don't, on the other hand, even try to embellish your foodie credentials by claiming knowledge of Signor Traverso; he is a friend who acquires the rights to children's television programmes by day (well, somebody's got to) and becomes a splendid, amateur, Italian cook by night.  His lemon and mint risotto, which costs only a few pence per portion and which he audaciously makes in a pressure cooker, could make you weep with pleasure.

The day began with a morning of Italian olive oil tasting at the Mermaid Conference Centre at Blackfriars.  Yes, whilst you were toiling in your office, driving your bus, looking after your children or doing something else useful, 70 to 80 of us were slurping oils and comparing the colour, clarity, viscosity, grassiness, richness, pepperiness and I forget what else.

And to think that when I was a boy - and I'm not that old - we only encountered olive oil in tiny bottles at the chemist's where it meant to cure earache.  We've come a long way.

Its story in this country is surely similar to that of wine.  My parents were lucky if they drank wine once a year.  Actually, 'lucky' isn't the right word, as they were rarely relaxed enough to enjoy it.  For a start, they would be in a restaurant, a rarely-visited, intimidating place full of etiquette booby traps and superior staff.  Then there would be the worry of knowing what to order: no-one back than had consumed enough to know whether they were a Chardonnay lover or a sauvignon blanc kind of guy.  Better to stick to gin and orange for the ladies and mild or bitter for the gents: you knew where you were with a Beefeater and Britvic or a pint of M&B.

Then, suddenly, we were all wielding corkscrews and knocking back the Blue Nun and Mateus Rose and feeling ever so European and sophisticated.  Fast forward a bit further and everyone is debating grape varietals, New World versus Old, supermarket own labels against the big brands.  Then we realised there was more to sparkling wine than over-priced champagne and tooth-rottingly sweet Asti Spumante, that dessert wines were brilliant with dessert (the clue in the name ought to have alerted us sooner), and that roses could vary as much as reds and whites.  Now olive oil is making the same kind of journey.

You'd have thought our tasting session was an event of international importance - a meeting of EU delegates, perhaps, or a UN press conference - rather than a jolly good skive for olive oil producers, retailers, a posh, tweedy chap who announced himself as 'Britain's only qualified olive oil taster', plus numerous food writers who should have been pounding their PCs, meeting deadlines for articles like "11 new ways with bananas!!" or "10-minute Christmas pudding: it's not too late to make your own!".

First, a panel of the great and good of Italian olive oil addressed us via headsets and an interpreter.  Then an elegant Englishwoman of Italian descent with the dark looks of Sophia Loren but the refined accent of Celia Johnson waxed lyrical about the product.  She "trembles with excitement" when she encounters a new variety, apparently, which sounded very Sophia and not at all Celia.  Olive oil was "the oldest food known to mankind," she claimed.  What, older than woolly mammoth steak gnawed by a caveman?  Never mind, it sounded good.

We were advised to pour a little of each oil into the palm of our hand, inhale the bouquet then slurp it, taking in plenty of air, as you would when tasting wines (although we weren't offered a receptacle for spitting, thankfully).  Ms Loren-Johnson hoped we hadn't been drinking coffee, smoking or gargling with mouthwash as all these activities blunt the tastebuds.

Unquestionably, there was a fair degree of vareity in the oils' colours and flavours, although I couldn't quite identify the almond or chocolate notes described by our passionate hostess (perhaps she was also distantly related to Jilly Goolden).  Between samples, we sipped water and ate tiny slivers of apple to refresh our palates.

The subsequent Q&A was perhaps the most informative and fun part of the morning.  We learnt that olive oil that's past its best but not yet rancid makes an excellent moisturiser or, mixed with salt, a body scrub.  It's not just a boon to humans, either; rub it into your horse's coat and he'll gleam like he's in the title sequence of TV's Black Beauty.  Whether it's wise to ride him in this condition was not discussed: might his saddle be more likely to slide off?

Was it true that many Italians start the day by drinking a glass of olive oil, someone wanted to know.  Absolutely, enthused Ms Loren-Johnson-Goolden, it's a well known way of 'keeping the body balanced'.  Balderdash, countered one of the gloomy Italian heavyweights via his interpreter and our headsets, it's extremely rare for Italians to consume olive oil in this way.

What's the difference between virgin and extra-virgin?  The latter is cold-pressed, a chemical-free process producing a lower level of acidity, we were told.  I've always thought we need to coin a new term to replace 'extra-virgin'.  How can anything be more virginal than virgin?  It makes no more sense than 'super omnipotent' would, or 'especially unique' or 'blander than Daniel O'Donnell'.

Always store olive oil in a cool, dark place, we learned, as light and temperature fluctuation are its greatest foes.  For this reason, never buy it in clear bottles and run screaming from any deli that displays it in the window.

Signor Locatelli was on the panel, and all ears pricked up when he announced that he must dash back to Refettorio, the Italian restaurant in the nearby Crowne Plaza City Hotel of which he is consultant, to finish making our lunch, every course of which would incorporate the oils we had been tasting.  We were to sample carpaccio of sea bass; gnocchi with both cooked and shaved, raw artichoke; roast, crusted sea bream and, slightly alarmingly, olive oil cake with olive oil ice cream and dark chocolate sorbet.

Suddenly, the lack of regulation governing sell-by dates, and price differentials between Italian and Spanish oils seemed less riveting.

And the lunch was truly outstanding.  The ambience was buzzy yet relaxed, and the company - I shared a table with three effervescent women responsible for many of Waitrose's publications - charming and stimulating.  Our wine glasses were regularly topped up by smiling staff and, most importantly, every one of Signor Locatelli's culinary creations sang.  Even the pud, which had sounded suspiciously clever-clever, proved that olive oil into cake and ice cream will go.  He toured the tables afterwards to canvass opinion and seemed as excited as a kid in a sweet shop by our fulsome praise.  He is either a master showman or still besotted by his craft, and the quality of his food suggests the latter.

My only concern was whether I'd be ready for another Italian feast that night.  Trencherman that I am, I shouldn't have worried.  My friend, Alessandro, was on fine culinary form, delighting his guests with a cold, thin, crisp, Med veg and parmesan tart followed by bagna cauda.  This is a dip made from vast quantities of garlic and anchovies and, seemingly, little else.  There are rumours that olive oil and butter play supporting roles, but you'd never know it.  Each diner receives a bowl of the stuff set over a tea light candle to keep it hot.  All manner of raw and cooked vegetables are provided to dip into it.  It a warming, wintery, fun, communal, healthy feast although, if you dislike anchovies, it must truly be the dish from hell.  The garlic rules out snogging for at least three days but guarantees you plenty of space when commuting on the Northern Line.  The meal concluded with not one but two very sound homemade cakes, one chocolate, the other featuring pears.

I couldn't help but think what a 'London' occasion it was.  Eight of us sat round the table, all men aged 30 to 50.  Three were German and two, Italian.  There was one Dutchman and one Filipino which made me the lone Brit.  I'm probably wearing my metropolitan-tinted spectacles, but I couldn't imagine such a group convening in Nuneaton or Newton Abbot, so I don't think I'll go and live there.  (As the snotty continuity announcer played by Suzie Blake on 'Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV' once said: "And now a message for our viewers in the North: it must be awful for you.") 

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