Located at the base of tall mountains and sitting alongside famous Lake Garda, is Arco, a town in the North of Italy that nests a fantastic environment for the growing of olives. Humidity that arises from the lake is regulated by cool winds, it is these important details that make this region one of the most Northern points of Europe that is able to produce olive oil. I was lucky enough to find myself here for GirOlio, a weekend dedicated to celebrating high quality olive oil produced in the region, a great chance to meet professional tasters and oil enthusiasts whilst taking part in tastings, degustations and cooking lessons.
Dr Alfei an expert taster of olive oil, arrived from Ancona (Italy) to speak to us about the importance of consuming high quality and the benefits it has on your health. Her first tip was “use your nose!” An oil can not carry any sensory defects, not even slightly, or it is considered rancid. Fresh and clean notes are the result of a good olive oil; whereas, nutty (such as peanuts) or a smell of overripeness may be found in an oil with a defect. She proved this to us with a smell test of three different oils; Oil number one was a genuine oil that had been made at home by a local farmer, it held a musty smell due to a fault in the filtering process. Oil number two was a standard supermarket oil that is sold at around 3 euro ($3.75) for a liter, although it smelt fruity it had a fatty presence and not one sign of freshness. The third oil was considered to be of high quality, it smelt fresh and clean, Dr Alfei described this oil as having a greener scent, something the other oils lacked. This was a simple test with a large effect, the different qualities were recognizable even to the untrained.
With this information in mind we were taken for a scenic walk through the Councils Olive groves by two local tour guides, a spectacular way to experience first hand the origin of the Oil. Every spare piece of land had been used to transform this mountain into a mass of olive trees. We finished the day with a cooking lesson from a well-known chef of Trentino, Rinaldo Desasso, who prepared for us two very simple seafood dishes using Olive oil to finish. He emphasized that good cooking is about using simple methods and ingredients, chosen correctly, olive oil can be used as the perfect ingredient to tie your plate together. Quality ingredients are the secret of any good chef.
What are the benefits of a quality olive oil? Dr Alfei explained that olive oil helps lower levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and can help prevent Alzheimer. When tasting Olive Oil you may notice that it leaves a bitter and spicy feeling in the mouth, this is a great sign, the higher the level of pungency or spiciness of the olive oil is relative to a high level of antioxidants and polyphenols that have been retained during the milling process. The less an olive oil has been processed the better it is for you, when buying oil you should look out for the type of process the olives have been through, the best being extra virgin olive oil.
However to retain quality you need to store it your olive oil correctly. Dr Alfei insisted that Olive Oil holds its quality for only 1 year, so it is best to use your olive oil, don’t leave it to age - unlike wine! You should conserve your olive oil in a clean, dark colored bottle, this blocks light and puts a hold on oxidization (Oxidization can lead to a decrease in flavor and valuable nutrients) and at a temperature between 15 and 17 degrees. A quality Olive oil is a valuable fat and one of great benefit in the diet. Start using it drizzled on your vegetables, soups and salads or copy the italians put it on the table to serve with every meal. By supporting local farmers, you are benefiting yourself and the local area, an olive oil that has travelled less distance is bound to be fresher, one of the most important qualities to look for when choosing olive oil.