Global Province Letter: The Magic Olive Oil Salon and the Cultivar Economy

January 6, 2010

Christmas Morning Breakfast: It was even dank as we came down the stairs to Christmas 2009. Rain and snakelike vapors were in the air, such that one kept all the lights blazing inside and outside the house. The reindeer standing in the grass, incandescent, beat back the gloom brought on by the insistent rain. The day’s stately celebration, punctuated by Gregorian chants, could have flagged under the dour, accusing skies, but the days of preparation and the accumulation of storybook ornaments made it sparkle. This year we added a medal to the well-coiffed tree from Woburn, Massachusetts, honoring the amazing Count Rumford (also known as Sir Benjamin Thompson), a global statesman, thermal scientist, and much more.

Soon enough a Berber omelette of our own devising was set out on the table, its taste cutting through the fog wrapped around our sluggish brains. The thick-cut slab of Black Forest bacon rivaled the double-smoked we have had in German eateries, the combination putting a luscious spin on America’s traditional bacon and eggs. A dash of Frescobaldi olive oil, which has some bite to it, sparked up the breads which were a little wanting. Good loaves are hard to come by, a quandary much lamented by the French baguette scholar Steven Kaplan.

Twelve Days of Christmas. In fact, Santa’s workshop went into high gear back in the Fall when leaves were first dropping from the highest branches of the hickories and oaks. The merriment surrounding Christmas has to get started very early in December and must last well into January if one’s heart is to become properly bestirred. We had long since realized that a successful holiday is never achieved in 24 hours, but consists of a series of small playlets with different high notes and pleasures that sail into view over perhaps 40 days. In fact, it’s discouraging to see a discarded Christmas tree at the curb on December 26, heartrending evidence that some home dweller does not understand what ceremonial exaltation is all about. Christmas is a train of happy happenings, lighting upon us before the first snows, and lasting well past the launch of the New Year.

We ourselves were totally engaged by December 13, some twelve days before Christmas, when we welcomed in a genteel lot of friends and Romans for our olive oil salon. Our oil selection was largely brought together by the marvelous Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti. That afternoon we sampled 6 oils, all of them excellent, the slurping of oil mixed with conversational forays into Texas music; the intricacies of bone marrow treatment; the random, unplanned paths in life we call careers; and camel riding in Morocco by the sea. Amongst the 14 celebrants were both a sculptor and il dottore, an amiable academic, two cooks of distinction, a photographer or perhaps two, an Englishman, a Mexican, a Moroccan, and etc. Our hope was that the olive oil would line the tracts of all our participants, equipping them for the surfeit of rich food and the glassy tankards of alcohol that would fill their Christmas season.

And that it would salute peace and restfulness. “In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam an olive branch is a sign for peace. The Torah, and The Qur'an describe a story in which a dove was released by Noah after the Great Flood in order to find land. The dove came back carrying an olive branch in its beak, proof for Noah that the Great Flood had receded. (Book of Genesis 8:11).” Wikipedia further explains, “In Greek tradition, olive branches represent peace.[11] The plant was considered sacred to the ancient goddess of wisdom, Athena.[11]”  We would be hard-pressed to think of a better way to begin a season of harmony than to anoint ourselves with olive oil.

Mellow Uniformity. The tasters, by and large, favored the Mas des Barres from France, a pleasant and harmless oil, one of those universal distillations to which only a professional carper could object. The Frescobaldi Laudemio, which had a lot of bite, only excited a visitor with a truly adventurous palate. The very distinctive Melgarejo, green and freshly pressed and just in from the assiduous producer in Spain, was too overwhelming for most palates, though its rich green-ness is the very quality which draws heavy praise from those in the trade who value abundant taste in their oils. Yet one very fine chef said it reminded him of the newly created oil set out by his mother when he was still in knee pants. Our guests were fortunate, however: all of the oils were of very high quality: there was not a rotter in the bunch.

Foods with little taste and minor seasoning have been the winners in the mass-market era that is just now ending. The secret of some of the better known restaurants created for monied, swan-song oldsters is their conspicuous banality, the formulaic food spared any hint of originality or luminous taste. Producers of foodstuffs in the 20th century strove to achieve one universally accepted taste, which largely meant no taste at all. This is most commonly seen in American beers which many liken to soapsuds and which are more distinguished by their advertising than their brewing. It should not escape us that in many, many instances, we have been paying for the advertising, not the product.

Wines, too, have come in time to be manufactured with one flavor and often too high an alcohol reading, tendencies laid out in the movie Mondovino. Our palates are now educated to savor the uniform and accustomed to the bland. It is hard for us to take to the distinctive. It is not surprising that our tasters on the 13th went for the mild and delicate.

Blind Tastings. In retrospect we realize that we did the tasting the wrong way. We were seduced by notions we’d picked up during a 3-day olive oil course we took at the University of California Davis a few years back. That is UC’s aggie school, which does all sorts of things with crops and olive oils and wines. Ladies of beauty and distinction often went there in days of yore with a view to becoming veterinarians, but then they went on to marry rich fellows, so that they could ride horses instead of tending to them. We are enamored of its 20-point wine rating scale, a system that works much better than the 10-point evaluations many use.

The seminar infused us with the technique, and myth, and platitudes of the oily trade. We sometimes were not told what we were tasting: both we and the instructors did not know that much about the oils or their provenance. We imbibed out of the standard blue glasses used by the olive oil set so that our reactions would not be tempered by the coloring of the oil. We first warmed the glass and oil with our hands. Soon enough we learned to look for grassiness, and fruitiness, and tastes of nuts and avocados and lemons, and all the other mysterious adjectival flavors our fellow classmates discovered. Drab ultraviolet surroundings in the classrooms ensured that neither California’s innate beauty nor the lush shrubbery that runs down a bed in the Davis campus put a halo around our deliberations. The theory was that our findings would be unbiased and honest if we were not taken in by extraneous perceptions involving all our other senses. Subsequent tastings we have attended have been equally arid. Implicit here is the paradoxical notion that sensory deprivation and spotty, technocratic knowledge create superior enlightenment and pointed insight when imbibing sacred liquids.

Our tasting on December 13 fell short in much the same manner. Our guests did not quite know what they were sampling. They had no special knowledge about the oils or what to look for. All the tomfoolery surrounding wine and olive oil tastings made our experience less than it might have been. Our approach was entirely wrong: we were taken in by the cant of the trade. We dulled the taste of the oil and diluted the spirit of Christmas. A blind tasting is just that: an exercise in blindness.

Better that we had played some sylvan music, illuminated the occasion with filtered light, traced the history of olive oil back to its beginnings somewhere in the Middle East, and marveled at its undoubted regenerative powers. Olive oil, it turns out, can revive almost any food that is over the hill: we commonly use it on smoked salmon that is past its prime, the oil and freshly ground black pepper bringing the fish back to life. We have come to better understand, as well, the health benefits of olive oils, which seem to arise from their polyphenols, rather than fatty acids (as was previously thought). The tasting of olive oil should be a beautiful cultivated occasion, laden with nuance, not an antiseptic, semi-cult rite of food wonks. About the only thing we did right in December was to read aloud Pablo Neruda’s marvelous Ode to Olive Oil, particularly:

        Olive oil,
        The internal supreme
        Condition for the cooking pot
        Pedestal for game birds
        Heavenly key to mayonnaise
        Smoothe and tasty
        Over the lettuce
        And supernatural in the hell
        Of the king mackerels like archbishops.

In fact, it is the assemblage of art, and history, and random insights that can turn a mere olive oil tasting into a quintessential Christmas event. It is culture itself that makes Christmas more than a day quickly forgotten and lends conviction to the idea that man deserves to be around on this earth in the years ahead.

Down-to-Earth Tasting. Wayne Bremmer, who hangs around the outskirts of the fancy food trade, instructs us well on how to put euphemism aside and to capture the essence in a little aside called “How to Taste Olive Oil.”:

After the first five booths, besides tooth picks and slices of baguette for dipping, I found every person representing olive oil producers used the word "grassy" multiple times. The exception was certain foreign producers, whose oil tastes "gassy."

The word "grassy" seems as useful as "fruity" is when describing wine. It took generations of writers thousands of intoxicated evenings to rummage around their altered imaginations to find better words than "fruity." And it required even more hung-over mornings spent settling on which of these words could be used with a straight face.

Appreciating a good olive oil starts with looking at color and consistency. Professional tasters tend to ignore the color - it can be tampered with. But for the rest of us, olive oil should not be clear or white, which indicates it is refined and not from the first pressing. The spectrum of colors displayed by quality olive oils is between a grassy yellow and a frumpy green.

During the presentation, Fulvio Genovese demonstrated the proper way to taste olive oil. Before tasting, put the oil in a shot glass and warm it in your hand so it rises a bit above room temperature. Smell it. The smell is usually dominated by the "G" word.

Just as spitting wine correctly is not as easy as the spitting you learned to love as a child, tasting olive oil is not as simple as sipping it. Through his translator, it took Fulvio several attempts to explain the technique. You want to quickly suck the oil over your palette with a lot of air, so it evenly coats your mouth and doesn't settle on your tongue.

Exeunt Rumpole. All the posturing about tastings—wine and olive oil—remind us of the wonderful Horace Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer’s creation, who once wangled an invite to a high falutin’ wine tasting (“Rumpole and the Blind Tasting,” 1987). Only an honest roughneck in the crowd recognized the wine for the swill it was: the well-known fancy woman wine critic thought it was swell. Mortimer was a genius at poking holes in gas-filled balloons—pompous judges, silly opera fans, health club addicts, and wine experts.

Now both Mortimer and Leo McKern, who played Rumpole in the TV series, have gone to their maker. Mortimer’s last take, A Rumpole Christmas, is now in print, and it surely is just what you need to complete your Christmas 2009 season.

A Billion Boutiques. Fine virgin olive oil—and olive oil salons—are also very good metaphors for how we must rethink our business lives. Selling average products in big box stores will no longer create American jobs or contribute to our health and welfare. Arguably, mass-market thinking is sucking the air out of our lives. Despite our riches, our standard of living has actually declined. We must customize production and selling and service so that there is nothing that’s not special about every aspect of the product cycle. There’s plenty of bad, even counterfeit, very generic olive oil on all our grocery shelves that’s not tasteful, or nutritious, or health giving. Our future happiness and our prosperity are bound up with a different economic model that embraces meaningful variety and copious service.

As we’ve said a 1,000 times, mass manufacturing and mass marketing are history in the United States. They’re the old regime, the old way of thinking about things, the economic model embedded in our huge old companies that are dying and only holding on by chopping costs and cutting away at their own sinews. The United States and the major developed economies are playing a losing game when they do generic, commodity-like products, even when they get things made in China and India. Even with outsourcing, their costs are still too high. For sure, the up-and-coming nations can do ‘mass’ as well or better than us.

Our main chance is to do one of kind products and experiences that are highly innovative, highly individual, and that are delivered and serviced in a highly custom manner. Our task is to become magicians who endow ordinary products and experiences with a penumbra that mass producers do not understand and cannot duplicate. An olive oil has to have high individuality and be delivered in a special manner. Let a billion boutiques flourish that make every moment special. Such attention to every detail is also an antidote to the alienation lurking in modern life.

That’s quite a task. Americans themselves are still caught up in the mass market, buying ordinary and somewhat slipshod products from Wal-Mart, and Target, and their kin. They are more than willing to buy the extremely ordinary and feel that they have good goods in hand. It’s our challenge to become more discriminating about what we buy and what kind of service we will tolerate so that we are can learn what we should produce and how we should treat a customer. If we are accustomed to the mundane, we will produce the commonplace. Mass-market consumption also produces mass-market thinkers: it’s hard, in the present atmosphere, to generate the mental quirks which make street-by-street democracy and the spirit of Yankee invention flourish.

The Way Forward in 2010.  In the current recession-depression, companies have been perplexed about what to do. How to survive? How to recover? Most just keep cutting costs and holding on for dear life. Slow death.

Agile companies, however, are taking a different tack. They’re going for understated luxury, quality without frippery, something better that does not cost the moon. For instance, Nordstrom seems to be rising out of the downturn better and faster than the other high-end department stores. “Nordstrom Inc., which acted earlier than many retailers on signs of the recession, appears poised to come out of the downturn faster than some of its more luxurious rivals. The 108-year-old retailer, which has always offered a wider assortment of brands and prices than higher-end competitors such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, has been working with vendors to create exclusive, but less expensive, second lines and pushing into more sales channels.”  While this approach is still a far cry from the differentiated, high quality, high service model companies need to achieve, it does make clear that Nordstrom understands that it cannot discount its way out of a ditch. “Better, but not foolish” becomes the right strategy.

In short, companies should look to frugal luxury as a way out of our current slump, particularly since their total buying audience is shrinking at the moment, as citizens struggle with obesity yet try to tighten their belts. That tactic should only be a stop on the way to global products that are very different, very innovative, and are channeled to the customer in a stylish manner that conveys their quality and particularity.

P.S. Melgarejo makes the common uncommon. During our last trip to Spain, we visited with the folks at Melgarejo. They produce an extraordinarily fine picual—our favorite variety of olive oil. It is a common olive that accounts for a huge amount of production, such that even people in the trade regard it as second rent. Our discovery is that it is as good as it gets. Its quality depends on the 1,000 adjustments and cares the Aceites folks put into their product, every step of the way. We were stunned by all the tweaking that goes into fine olive oil production.  It’s located, by the way, in the vicinity of Jaen, which is virtually the capital of Spain’s olive oil production, and Spain’s is by far the world’s big producer. This oil is hard to come by in the States, but of course it is carried by the doughty Mr. Corti. The makers also offer a fine blend or composition oil that’s somewhat less challenging.

P.P.S.  When you are trying to conquer big problems to achieve lasting excellence, you must take a very wide view, an approach that generally evades scientists, technicians, and technocrats. Context, we are learning, is everything. Most recently, the best thinkers about cancer realize that it’s not enough to study just cancer cells and hope to find a bit of DNA that can turn them on and off. Surrounding cells, and a nest of other factors, determine whether the cancer cells multiply and do their deadly work—or just lie dormant in the body. See “Old Ideas Spur New Approaches in Cancer Fight.”

By analogy, we should understand that the doctors really can never give us health: that comes from a healthy society, far from the confines of the hospital and physician waiting rooms. Once again we must look into things in the surroundings to achieve health.

In like manner, there’s a reasonable chance that we really never can enjoy the full taste of an oil, if we don’t see its color or drink it from a wonderfully shaped glass or surround ourselves with a beautiful aura. Or, that Christmas and other holidays only shine, when preceded by a host of other delights.  It’s all the other things that make the ordinary extraordinary.

Pragmatism and empiricism, the philosophical strands that made America, have about run their course. They take on the universe piecemeal, but now that approach avails us nothing. Piecemeal thinking leads to piecemeal vision: we never see the whole.

P.P.P.S. Scams surround the wine and olive trades, and they range way beyond the self delusions practiced at tastings. The Billionaire’s Vinegar is a fun tale, centered around some bottles sold for vast sums of money because they supposedly came from Thomas Jefferson’s cache: a German trickster took in all the nabobs of the wine trade, as well as some very vain multimillionaires, with his counterfeiting skills. Commonly the Italians sell Spanish oil (as well as that of other countries) as their own. Much of the oil on our standard grocery shelves is rancid: refined oils have been assaulted by chemicals and should not really even be called olive oils. Most recently it has been noted that producers in Crete and elsewhere have overstated their production in order to get outrageous subsidies from the European Community.

P.P.P.P.S. French pastries are simply delicious. But they are all the more wonderful and scrumptious because they look so good. They taste better in beautiful Paris, fresh from a patisserie, than anywhere else. Some of us once upon a time ate ourselves silly, stopping for a pastry at all the old shops (many of which have since disappeared) dotting block after block on the East Side of New York: somehow that never produced the joy that came from a pastry in Paris. Our readers should not miss Susan Hochbaum’s Pastry Paris.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Here’s is an olive oil tasting glossary which will get you into the lingo used by afficinados. And then there are other terms of art you may enjoy and which will familiarize you with olive varieties.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. A couple of years back, we had dinner one evening at a Greek restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side with a couple of stars (retired) of the advertising trade. One fellow, a titan of Madison Avenue but a fine writer as well, turned our way, “I simply don’t understand what they are doing in advertising these days. It’s all mood, and no substance.” Indeed, products have lost their unique selling proposition, because there is nothing unique about them. Often, shrivelled by cost cutting, the products are downright bad, and the ad boys have no choice but to sell hot air instead. Eventually, of course, that’s a hollow, self destructive business strategy. The other advertising executive brought along a Greek statuette to keep the five of us company as we ate dinner.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. The versatile Count Rumford invented a fireplace, that is still celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, although the Count left America, having sided with the Tories. He made his mark in Great Britain and Germany. You will find that the fellows who host the home remodelling shows have done versions of the Rumford for your inspection.


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