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General · 15th April 2012
Francesca Gesualdi
Kitchens and bookstores have a few noteworthy things in common. Both accommodate the hunger for conviviality and hearty conversation. Both foster growth in one form or another. Neither needs to be huge to be a place of abundance. A cozy intimate, kitchen and a small, independent bookstore can come stocked with a wealth of character and flavor.

A few weeks ago I attended an olive oil tasting held in a bookstore that is also a kitchen. This is the genius and inspiration behind Barbara Jo’s Books to Cooks; that one can inhabit both types of places at once. The bookstore part feels more like someone’s stately, extensive personal library than a commercial venue. Its wooden shelves shoulder the graceful weight of zillions of words written about food, a veritable Ali-Baba’s cave of treasures to discover and make your own. In the well equipped demonstration kitchen at the back of the store these words come to life, as their authors and local chefs whip up a little passion over their favorite recipes.

This particular Saturday afternoon, it was mother and daughter team Helen and Anastasia Koutalianos that were bringing their book From the Olive Grove: Mediterranean Cooking with Olive Oil. (Arsenal Pulp Press) to life. The book features traditional Greek recipes inspired by the
Gold Award Winner, Eleni Golden Olive oil they produce on their family farm in Greece, which has been in the family for four generations. I brought along a mother and daughter team of my own to the tasting, Foodwisdom Chef Antonietta and her 7 year old daughter, Sous – Chef Maria, because mother and daughter teams have great food stories to share.

For the occasion we donned our Ceremonial Foodwisdom Chefs’ hats before heading out to Barbara Jo’s. I custom sew these ‘toques’ myself, as an antidote to cheap, synthetic chefs hats one can buy on the web these days. Mine are made out of fine herringbone cotton, or hand woven cotton and silk, hand-dyed with vegetable based inks. These hats are a way of wearing our hearts on our heads when it comes to all things nourishing. We attract an abundance of huge smiles and a fortune in kind words as we cruise down the street in our Ceremonial Head Gear.

In our Foodwisdom workshops we teach kids the value of choosing healthy fats in their diets, and authentic, traditional olive oil is one of the healthiest fats they can enjoy.
According to our own Ministry of Health, this generation of kids is the first generation of kids at risk of living shorter life spans than their parents, largely because of their adherence to what researchers call the modern western diet. Unhealthy, refined fats abound in this diet. When we let the kids in our classes read this prognosis from their own Ministry of Health for themselves, it never fails to get their attention.

Kids need our help to be able to negotiate the label on a bottle of olive oil with a discerning eye, for there are many poor quality olive oils on the market. A high quality olive oil need not be expensive, but the health benefits it confers are priceless.
Full of phytonutrients and polyphenols, it aids everything from bone structure to cognitive function and is a source of Vitamin E and beta-carotene. As a superior antioxidant, it protects against cancer and heart disease.
Extra virgin olive oil has been a beauty secret for thousands of years; it provides the skin with a deep, nourishing moisturizer.
It is also a holistic way of treating head lice in children. The olive oil dissolves the exoskeleton of the lice, effectively killing them without the use of harsh chemical agents on a young scalp, while leaving the hair stronger.

The Koutalianos’ book provides a simple and straightforward list of characteristics to look for in olive oil, information to seek out on the label.
Extra-Virgin indicates that this is the first pressing of the olives, so you have the most phytonutrients available. Some olives are pressed up to three times, making for poor oils. Technically, extra virgin also denotes that no chemicals or high heat were used to extract the oil. However, I also look for the actual statement that solely mechanical means were used. You can also check for professional certifications that denote a standard in quality.
Cold press or cold extraction assures the buyer that the olives were not heated above 80 c 27 f. Temperatures above this destroy any health benefits the oil has.
Unfiltered is best, even if it leaves the oil looking a little cloudy.
Acidity levels should be lower than .8%. Olives are best when picked by hand when still slightly green, to ensure that full ripening does not degrade the acidity levels.
Date of Harvest or Best-By date: As the Koutalianos’s are fond of saying, olive oil is not like wine. It doesn’t age well. Consume within a year, two at the most.
Single estate gives the assurance that all the olives were harvested in one grove, not blended from all over the map.
Take care when reading the country of origin. It may be packed in Italy, but the olives originate from as many as six different countries.

I decided to do some informal research on the shelves of my local food retailers on what can be found on the label of an olive oil bottle. After visiting four stores and reading labels from more than 50 different brands, I found that labels are notoriously inconsistent in the quality of information they provide. They are designed to window dress the olive oil, not inform the consumer.
None listed the acidity level, except for the Koutalianos’s.
Pure Natural, these words provide no assurance of anything at all.
Light, delicate, usually mean they have been deodorized, the life-force has been drained from the olives.

Precious few labels listed a harvest date. The brand I use most for my daily needs gave a best-by date instead of a harvest date, which is equally valid. Price differentials were starkly revealing. My brand, which I purchase in a three litre tin (it is single estate, extra-virgin, cold pressed, not organic), sold for $21.98 at my favorite retailer, $32.99 at another store, and $51.99 at yet a third. This gives me something else to talk to the kids about. Ideally, olive oil is best stored in dark colored glass, away from direct sunlight, with which it will react.

As the tender afternoon wore on and we sat around the kitchen in the bookstore, laughing over our food stories and dipping fresh bread in healthy olive oil, (something Homer referred to as “liquid gold,”), I began to feel like I was around the family table.

“That’s really important work you’re doing with the kids,” smiled mother Helen, “and it’s only right that Maria there is a big part of it,” she added, nodding her respect to our young Sous-Chef. Helen reminds me very much of my own mother. Both these women are from a generation of elders who measured their wealth in terms of the health of their children and their neighbors’ children.
By that standard we are a significantly impoverished community.

Last year the provincial government announced a $69million dollar campaign called the Healthy Families Campaign.

Foodwsidom invited the Premiere to lunch to discuss how these taxpayer dollars are being spent,, but our invitation was declined.

“Ask again,” says Helen.
“Ask again, ” says everybody we talk to.
Family. Kitchens. Bookstores.

© Francesca Gesualdi, 2012

Extra Virgin - Clarification
Comment by Francesca Gesualdi on 18th April 2012
Hi Francesca,

Great article. Loved the imagery; felt I was on the journey with you! Thought I'd point out: extra virgin does not mean first press. An extra virgin olive oil could in theory be pressed more than once; its true category refers to the level of acidity in the olive oil. Olive oils with an acidity of 0.8% or less are extra virgin; anything above 0.8% to about 2.5% is virgin. The lower the acidity, the better quality...given it is higher in antioxidants and phyto-nutrients (as it is a fresher olive oil...and in some ways, will last longer, have you...less acidity is best but still olive oil tends to lose its nutritional value after 2 years). In order to determine what is extra virgin or virgin...well, you have to take your olive oil to the lab. There's no other way to measure acidity in the fruit once it has been pressed. First press is important in that mass-producers (not all but some) add solvents and additional heat to continually press the olive mash after the olives have been pressed once to get as much olive oil from it as possible. First press tells the consumer that the olives were pressed once. (Fingers crossed no craziness went into making the olive oil.) But that said, not all olive oils are made equal, that's for sure!

Wish you continued success and hope your pasta workshops sells out!

Anastasia Koutalianos,
co-author, From the Olive Grove: Mediterranean Cooking with Olive Oil. (Arsenal Pulp Press)