Olive oil boasts a rich past. Dating back to
antiquity, it's a kitchen staple-a cornerstone in the gastronomic history of Western civilization. Native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, olives were eaten by the bushel in the days of the Roman Empire. The classical Greeks anointed their bodies with the oil. Maybe the ancients figured this out early on: Olive oil is a source of "good fat," one that helps control the levels of LDL (or bad cholesterol) and raise the levels of HDL (good cholesterol) in your system. It's also packed with antioxidants, free radical-combating nutrients that prevent cancer and keep you healthy and strong. Last fall, the famously hesitant FDA made it official: Foods rich in olive oil can be good for you.
But forget science. The best reason to utilize olive oil-to dip bread in it, to drizzle it on almost anything that comes out of your kitchen-is that it's delicious. The best varieties come from the hot, dry hillsides of Italy (especially Tuscany), Spain (Andalusia) and France (Provence). Your local supermarket should have a number of quality olive oils from these countries. Buy oils labeled "extra-virgin," indicating that the oil is "first press" and low in acidity (meaning fresh and full of flavor). Look for Borges, the delicate, citrus-inflected Spanish oil, or the rustic, spicy Italian olive oils from Colavita and Filippo Berio.
Specialty shops and gourmet delis stock wide arrays of small-production oils from the Mediterranean as well as from up-and-coming regions of Australia and California. There are tons of small producers, each using different varieties of olives, grown under different climatic conditions. The flavor of high-end olive oil is as dependent as wine on climate and soil-and real connoisseurs taste oil with the same enthusiasm as oenophiles.
To meet some truly oil-passionate people, head to Oliviers and Co., a specialty oil importer with outposts in major cities (none in ski country, so pack your own). Each year, Oliviers offers fresh "Grand Cru" oils from tiny artisan growers in Europe. Try the smooth and floral Aires del Coto from Andalusia, or the rich, peppery Moulin Fortune Arizzi from the mountains of Provence. These are fresh oils, imported within days of pressing, and shouldn't be stored longer than six months. But don't cook with them: Olive oil loses its flavor in the frying pan.
IF YOU PREFER OLIVES
>Gaeta An Italian olive well-known for its role in pizza and pasta sauce. Black, dry- or brine-cured, with a nice, meaty texture and slightly salty taste.
>Kalamata The Greek olive, almond-shaped and black-purple, deliciously fruity and tart.
>Manzanilla A green olive from Spain, aromatic and mild.
>Nyons A prized, bitter-tasting black olive, also from France, generally found dry-cured in salt.
>Picholine A green olive from France with a slightly bitter, nutty flavor.