The olive tree springs from the taproot of Mediterranean life. Over time, I’ve heard of olive oil being used for everything from stretch marks to kidney stones to coughs. After caring for a grove, it’s impossible not to think of olive oil as a holy substance. The biblical references to anointing the body with oil had to have meant olive oil. Who first squeezed those bitter drupes and discovered the oil? She’s our missing goddess or saint! She found the soul of the Mediterranean diet.
How to describe the distinct, polyphonic, greeny, assertive, fresh, piquant, sublime taste of just-pressed extra-virgin olive oil? Every year at harvest, I marvel at the punch it delivers to everything I cook. At this stage, just-pressed oil is bursting with health-improving properties, as well as that indescribable taste. Your cooking skills quadruple when you cook with the freshest oil available.
Tuscans use great olive oil every day. When I first arrived in Tuscany, I was surprised to see Don Ferruccio, a local priest, eating an orange that he doused in olive oil and salt. That was a defining moment for me; I realized in one bite what I’d missed.
Since everything in moderation could be the Tuscan motto, cooks use just enough olive oil. Salads remain crisp when just glistened with olive oil, and maybe, not always, a hint of vinegar or lemon juice, then a judicious sprinkling of salt. On meats, the bottle tips farther: a liberal swathing of the steak or roast produces rich juices.
From massaging the newborn’s umbilical cord to anointing the body for the shroud, olive oil always has been the essential ingredient of Italian life.