The Fresh Press
Chile: The New Kid
By Nancy Loseke
Filed: June 05, 2008
A question I’m often asked is, “What country do you think produces the best olive oil?”
Most people expect the word “Italy” to roll unhesitatingly off my tongue. But the truth is, I really don’t know the answer at any given time.
Forgive me, but I have a tendency to love the one I’m with — olive oil, that is — especially if it’s fresh-pressed. A couple of months ago, I was in a serious relationship with Spanish oils and was splashing them over nearly everything destined for my mouth with the possible exception of my toothbrush. Exciting Arbequinas and Picuals. Round Ocals and charismatic Hojiblancas and Picudas. Suave, complex blends and a few rough and tumble, throat-pinching (but in a good way) bad boys.
Then, some tempting samples of novellos from Chile showed up on my doorstep. Suddenly, my heart’s divided and my head’s composing “Dear Juan” letters.
You might think me promiscuous, but the world’s olive oil bar is not a static place.
The olive oil industry’s biggest players — the Colavitas and the Bertollis and others — would like you to believe that it is. Their predictable chem-lab consistency promotes the misconception that olive oil is olive oil, and that a bottle purchased in 2006 will taste the same as a bottle purchased in 2008. It’s just not true for smaller, artisanal producers. As an agricultural product, olive oil is subject to all the vagaries Mother Nature can conjure up, just as wine is. Cold, wet Springs. Wiltingly hot Summers. High winds. Pestilence. Early frosts. Rough handling. Or even perfect conditions. We tend to forget how tender and impressionable olives are. The charismatic oil from Sicily that won international tasting panels’ hearts last year might be a fat, flabby, fusty also-ran this year…the oleaginous equivalent of Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” versus Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” Remember your shock?
For centuries, the center of the world’s olive oil production has been the Mediterranean. Now, more than 20 countries including India, China, and even Japan — are in the olive oil game. I believe Chile is the one to watch. In fact, the Italian press has even referred darkly to this ingénue as “The Chilean Threat.”
Chile is a bit of a mystery to many Americans. Sandwiched between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, this slender, serpentine country is longer than the U.S. is wide. Its 4,000-plus miles of coastline stretches from the harsh deserts of the north to the even harsher wind-swept and otherworldly landscape of Patagonia. (Easter Island belongs to Chile as well.) Most variants of the world’s climates can be found along its length with the exception of tropical rainforest.
Central Chile’s climate has been compared to that of California; it is extremely hospitable to farming, viticulture, and most recently, to olive oil production. (The produce there is nothing short of amazing. On one trip, I ate apples as large as grapefruits, and with sugars so concentrated near the core they were positively translucent, like hard candy. And the avocadoes…don’t even get me started. Silky and perfectly ripened, you can buy a sack of them for around a dollar — not the $1.39 each that my supermarket charges for avocadoes that are sometimes inedible.)
I first traveled to Chile two years ago with my colleague, T.J. Robinson, to attend an olive oil tasting organized by Chileoilva—an olive growers’ group — and ProChile, a government-sponsored trade group that represents Chilean products worldwide.
We returned the following year, lured by the across-the-board quality we found on our first visit. (Would you like to join us in 2009? Introducing a few like-minded olive oil friends to the thrills of Chile and its oils — not to mention Pisco Sours — is an idea we’ve been seriously entertaining...for more information please send an e-mail to email@example.com.)
Astoundingly, though it has been host for hundreds of years to olive trees planted by Spanish and Italian immigrants, Chile got into the olive oil biz less than 20 years ago.
In the 1990s, in fact, there were only two commercial producers. Now, Chileoilva has approximately 50 members, many of whom are entering and winning the world’s most prestigious olive oil competitions. They owe their edge to many factors, not the least of which is the fact that their geography has protected them from the scourge of the olive oil fly, a critter that bedevils most of the world’s producers at one time or another. (The olive oil fly lays its eggs in the olive fruit, resulting in oil with a very “off”, spoiled taste. As I write, the olive oil fly is decimating part of Australia’s crop and causing damage, experts say, that will affect next year’s crop as well.)
One of the most senior members of Chileoilva, TerraMater, made history when it wrested the First Place award away from the Italians in 2005 in the renowned Sol D’Oro contest in Verona, Italy, with its top-of-the-line oil, Petralia, consistently one of my favorite oils.
It was samples from TerraMater, pressed just days ago, that caused me this week to fall in love all over again.
Here is what they sent:
One of my desk references suggests the olive variety Racimo Verde is actually a descendant of the Italian-bred Coratina, but TerraMater (and Chileoilva) insists Racimo is uniquely Chilean. It thrives in only one section of TerraMater’s groves, which are about four hours south of Santiago in Chile’s lush Maipo Valley. It is intensely green…as its name suggests…on the palm (I usually pour olive oil directly into my cupped hand when tasting) and on the palate. A beautiful nose and a long, balanced finish.
This truly is an Italian transplant, but the effects of terroir have changed it,
knocked some of its rough edges off. The tomatoey, vegetal character is still in evidence, but the jolt of pepper I was expecting never arrived. Its mild manner is not unappealing, though. Different strokes for different folks.
This is an oil I found beguiling last year, and it doesn’t disappoint in 2008. It is TerraMater’s wild child, pressed from olives that were planted by the founding sisters half a century ago. Relatively unsupervised, the olives proilferated and cross-pollinated, and no one really knows what olives go into the blend. They just pick the olives and press them in their on-site mill. Whatever it is, it is wonderful.
Racimo Verde and Racimo Negra Blend
TerraMater’s Export Manager, Victor Szecowka, hints that this 50-50 blend will likely be 2008’s top-of-the-line Petralia, the oil that put TerraMater on olive producers’ radar (and maybe “hit lists”!) It certainly has my vote. You know the amplified sensory pleasure you get when you grind freshly roasted coffee beans? It’s the same with this olive oil. In fact, somehow the bottle migrated from the kitchen to my office where I have been repeatedly sampling it, sometimes with coarse grains of Murray River salt from Australia. At this rate, I won’t have any left to cook with.
Chilean oils are still a rarity on American shelves, but TerraMater can be found with a bit of diligence and luck.
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TRAVEL TIPMore pain at the pumps: Major U.S. airlines are following the lead of United by charging as much as $25 for checked bags. Travel light.
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