OBSESSION: THE OLIVE OIL THAT DOES IT ALL
It’s easy enough to get into an olive oil rut. We all find brands we’re comfortable with—an inexpensive one for cooking, a fancier option for vinaigrettes or drizzling—and then stick with them for years. Decades, even. But given the extraordinary array of olive oils available in fancy-food shops and many supermarkets today, it’s a shame not to experiment with something new.
Take Spanish olive oils, for instance, which have long been undervalued and underrated. Pons, from northern Spain, is delicate yet distinctively olivey. Unió, a common supermarket brand, is fruity and mild, with a finish that’s peppery but not throat-catchingly pungent. A mature Nuñez de Prado, from Andalusia, is marvelously rounded and ripe tasting.
But what I really can’t get enough of is Merula (500 ml/$16.95), picked up on a visit to Formaggio Kitchen, one of my favorite stores on the planet. Produced by Marqués de Valdueza in Extremadura, the estate blend of fruity arbequinas, meaty hojiblancas, tart picuals, and buttery moriscas is lush, balanced, and extremely versatile. (You’ll find those same characteristics, by the way, in smoked paprika—another culinary gift from this remote region.) In fact, this is the olive oil I’m traveling with this summer, because it’s perfect for a weekend house or beach cottage: inexpensive enough to cook with, yet possessing enough character to act as condiment or seasoning. And even though I usually prefer a mild French olive oil for vinaigrettes, Merula won’t overpower a salad of tender young lettuces.
I am also crazy about the packaging: The oil comes in a sturdy tin, which is both easily transportable and impervious to the deteriorating effects of light. And there’s been something about the handsome merula (“blackbird” in Spanish) on the tin that, for weeks now, has reminded me of García Lorca … and Mort Rosenblum, a reporter’s reporter and author of the comprehensive, compulsively readable Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit. I finally sat down and flicked through the pages until I found what I was looking for*, from Poema del Cante Jondo. “The field / of olive trees/ opens and shuts / like a fan,” the poem begins. But the image that had stubbornly lodged in my memory comes at the end: “The olive trees / are loaded / with shouting. / A band / of captured birds / moving their broadest / tails in shadow.” Love that.
My obsession with Merula will probably last until winter, when I will crave something different, a leaf-green oil from the new harvest, with the sharp pepperiness of fresh-from-the-press polyphenols. But right now—even though I know heat is a great equalizer of cooking oils—I am reveling in the fact that everything I make with Merula tastes outrageously good. Fried eggs. Sautéed summer squash. Stewed tomatoes. Quick-braised greens.
And with Spain on the brain and a pound or so of beautiful wild American shrimp at my disposal, I even tried my hand at gambas al ajillo—cooking the shrimp quickly in plenty of hot oil along with a lavish amount of sliced spring garlic and a dusting of smoked paprika. This is a classic tapas offering, of course, but Sam and I called it dinner: I put the pan, still sizzling, on a trivet in the center of the table, and plunked down a baguette, a plate of thin-sliced ham, and a green salad spiked with flat-leafed parsley. We ate with utter concentration. “Can we do this again next week?” Sam asked. He had olive oil all over his chin.
* The only thing this book is missing is an index. Mort?? I’m just sayin’.