Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fairway Markets' Steven Jenkins on Olive Oil

I decided to split up Steven Jenkins’ email response to me and the essay that he sent me into two posts. I originally wrote to Fairway Markets inquiring more information about the Organic Olive Oil I buy and I received an impassioned response from their esteemed head buyer, Steven Jenkins, who is arguably the most informed cheese and oil man in the entire United States.

Jenkins has been in the cheese business since way before I was born. His first book Cheese Primer was published in November 1996 and to date it has been reprinted more than ten times. Cheese Primer was awarded a James Beard Foundation Award in 1997. He is also an active member of the American Cheese Society, and a regular contributor to The Splendid Table on National Public Radio. Jenkins had another book published in 2008, The Food Life, written with the esteemed Mitchell London.



Sheer, absolute and tiresome rubbish, all this misinformation and nonsense I read on innumerable internet sites about olive oil. Truly, I despair of the worldwide stranglehold the internet has us in, such a muddle of cant and blather, and one can only imagine the mess we’re in if all of life’s other subjects are treated so poorly.

Yes, this is a rant. I’ve been holding off for months, but I can’t hold it back any longer. I thought I’d wait until most of the new oils are in, the 2010 and early ’11 pressings. Don’t want all that negativity in the air while these sweet and innocent, golden and virid liquid kisses are wafting about.

The last fifteen years, and deeper the last six or eight, I have been immersed literally and figuratively in olive oil in much the same manner as with my concentration for cheese starting in the mid-‘70’s. I know of which I speak, and I know also if I feel like I have to announce such a thing I’m going to sound like a jerk. I have forgotten more about olive oil than anybody in the business knows. Anybody. Any chef, any chemist, importer, retailer or worldly academic whose jaunty hobby is food, travel, and, say, Mediterranean history. I have forgotten more than they will ever know. The way I can prove it is just you come to any of the Fairway Markets and spend a few hours looking at and tasting my olive oils, and reading their signs and the labels on the bottles and tins. After a few visits, each an investment of hours-long perusal and study, you will be able to proclaim that you yourself are more knowledgeable about olive oil than just about anybody drawing breath. Certainly anyone who chose to educate himself via the internet. That being said, the only way you would be able to ascend to my lofty level of command is to travel to each of the groves and mills that are responsible for the oils I import for my Fairways. Travel to them during all seasons, not just the autumnal culmination of each grove’s raison d’etre. Walk the rows of olive trees. Palpate the tree bark and leaves, and the soil in which the trees reside and consume; breath the air in which the trees respire; turn your face up into the sun for extended contemplative periods, as do the olive trees’ leaves, and talk with the farmers and the mill workers. Or, rather, listen. Talk, and then listen. Listen, listen.

The only more ignorant information than that from the internet is found in the weigh-ins and replies submitted by the readers of these websites that purport to be founts of authority.

There is no ‘best’ olive oil. Olive oil, as with any other sensory thing, is a matter of taste. ‘A chacun son gout’ – to each his own taste, it is said among French people. A Turk will have strong emotional attachment to the olive oil from his family’s groves, and a Kiwi will feel no less adoration for his. But neither is better than the other. Nor does the price of the two oils have any bearing on ‘good, better, best’. A professional such as myself may opine that the Turkish source is an oil of bitter and/or bland organoleptic sensation, and that the NZ source has an undeniable tomato and citrus tang to it. But one cannot and should not take away from a professional’s articulation of an oil’s properties any cumulative positive or negative value. Again, ‘a chacun son gout’. The professional will attempt to dazzle the listener or reader with words that take on objectivity, rococo and filigree, smoke and mirrors. The daughter of a grove’s patron will similarly attempt to impress, to elevate her family’s oil to mythic status via hyperbole. But none of it means a thing, neither the clinical authority of the professional nor the poesy of the owner of the very soil of the grove. It is all just one person’s opinion, mine included.

But one thing I do know about olive oil that is unassailable, and cannot be said to be a product of prejudice or emotion: There is a lot of bad olive oil out there. And there is probably some of it in your kitchen right this moment. Unless, of course, you are one of my habitual customers.

There is no country that can be said to produce ‘the best’ olive oil. I have always said the same about cheese. The country in which a grove resides is vastly less cardinal than the specific region of it; or indeed the sub-region. Or the sloping terraced hillside or ridge-like spine, or rock-strewn stretch of a particular neighborhood of that sub-region. And then -- and then more important is how the trees were tended, when the olives were harvested, what is the name of the olive involved in the soon-to-be-derived oil. More than one variety? Which? How were they taken from the tree? Were they shaken down and did they bounce on the ground and mix with the soil, and thereby become bruised and soiled? Or were they hand-stripped by workers on ladders wearing hollow goat’s horns on their fingers, or modern plastic-molded goat’s horn-like claws, and were they ripe or were they under-ripe those olives falling into basket or bucket, or were they gently bouncing on nylon nets carefully arranged and shrouded around each tree? Were they then taken immediately to the local mill where they were culled of all or most of the branches and twigs and leaves that were stripped away with them, and were they weighed and then pressed before the olives began to get stale and ferment and change utterly from the crisp and spotted, jewel-like, living nuggets they were to the mushy, lifeless and soggy lumps they are now? Were there obvious olive-fly boreholes in the olives? More than one? Was there any evidence of a filmy mold upon any of them? Did anyone notice how many leaves fell into the press along with the olives? Those leaves will affect the flavor, you know; leaves are chlorophyll and chlorophyll is not without taste, not to mention color. An oil’s viridity can be directly related to an overabundance of leaves in the press, and still those dunderheads on the internet that profess to know something about olive oil will attest to an oil’s wonderfulness being directly related to how green it is.

All of these things matter. All of these things determine the fragrances of an olive oil, the odors of it, too, if it has been created carelessly; the texture of an olive oil, that is, the mouth-feel, the way an oil feels on your tongue and on the roof of your mouth and the back of your throat. The way the ardence, the power, of an olive oil attacks your palate, the taste buds on the outside edge of your tongue, and the sensory buds high in your nasal passages that fire as you exhale through your nose across the slurry that has slid down the back of your throat, and the incipient bitterness that often arises on the back of your tongue at the approach of an early-harvest oil, the glucosides of green olives making themselves known, a challenge to all but the most enthusiastic of olive oil-lovers, that adult bitterness that thrills us like horehound, Campari, licorice or absinthe. And finally the frequent and cherished peppercorn sensation that some oils offer -- fresh-ground black and sometimes green peppercorns, so diametrically opposed to some oils’ sweetness on the finish, a finish like honey, like unsalted butter.

All of these things matter. And none of them can be said to come more or less from any specific oil. Unless, of course, you want to. Unless you believe it. Because then it is there. And that oil is the one that thrills you. After all, isn’t that the point?


  1. Oh my gosh this is an incredible letter. I miss Fairway. I would love to go stand in front of all their amazing olive oils and dip bread in the taste testers right now. Steven Jenkins speaks so beautifully about olive oil- if only more people could drum up the same passion about real food, we could create a paradigm shift within our food future!

  2. Key Phrases/Concepts: (Awesome letter!)

    "What was the quality of the soil?"
    "How were the trees raised?"
    "When were the olives picked?"
    "How were the olives treated after picking?" (i.e. What was the processing like?"

    This (IMO) does a great job outlining some essential truths about attaining quality nutrition: that the source of the food needs to be raised in it's 'ideal' environment so that it can produce high quality product . . . and then that product has to be appropriately cultivated/ cared for/prepared so that we can get the most nutritional value from it.

    Thanks for the post Christa!

  3. I love his passion. I wish more people were this passionate about the food they grew/purchased/ate.
    Sorry for the late comment, I was out of town and fell behind!