olives in a Tunisian mill in the early 1990s

DUNNO MUCH ABOUT OLIVE OIL BUT I KNOW WHAT I LIKE!

FUSTY is a flavor defect that most Americans connect positively with olive oil. Give em a fusty oil and they like it—as is proved over and over again when publications periodically rate olive oils for their readers. It’s too often a fusty oil that wins top rank.

Fusty is a flavor that develops with anaerobic fermentation, which happens when olives have been piled up at the mill or elsewhere too long after harvest and before they are pressed. The Italian word for it is riscaldo, meaning heated, and that’s what happens—the olives ferment and heat up and fusty is the flavor that inevitably comes out.

And fusty is indeed a defect. No oil judged by a panel of expert tasters to be fusty can be make the grade as extra-virgin, a denomination that is only awarded to oils that are free of any defects.

But all around the world, not just in America, even in (especially in) olive-producing regions, people continue to value fusty oil. Why? The answer is simple: It’s what we’re used to. Years ago, olives did indeed pile up, of necessity. Olive harvests often extended over several weeks, and farmers had difficulty getting big loads of fruit to the mill on the back of a donkey or in a trailer behind a three-wheeled APE, the farm vehicles of 1970s Italy. When I first went to live in Tuscany, in the mid-1970s, I remember a neighbor’s concrete terrace at the entrance to his kitchen. During the olive harvest, this is where he kept his olives, adding a couple more dozen kilos every day as he and his family picked away for a week or more, until there was enough accumulated to take to the mill. Those olives inevitably produced fusty oil.

sack of olives

Where fustiness begins

Now along comes Jean-Benoît Hugues who, with his wife Catherine, makes a marvellous Provençale oil called Castelas from olives grown on their 45 hectares of groves in the Vallée des Baux appellation. In April, when I saw him in Florence, he told me that he was about to produce a deliberately fusty oil because, he said, “that’s what my neighbors want.”  I raised my eyebrows—why would anyone deliberately make a defective oil? And Jean- Benoît smiled half-apologetically: “I sometimes think that’s the only way to get the authentic flavor of a true Provençale aïoli,” he said.

Well, one thing leads to another and a short time ago I received, from Rogers International, the U.S. importers of Castelas, a bottle of the Hugues’ new offering (a half liter sells for about $26, the people at Rogers told me). They call it “Fruité Noir” (black fruited), with good reason. And because it cannot be called extra-virgin, it is listed as Huile Vierge, virgin oil. That means it was produced, like extra-virgin oils, purely by mechanical means, without resort to any kind of chemicals or deodorizing processes—cold-pressed, if you will. And it is indeed fusty, no two ways about it! I certainly wouldn’t put it on my salad, nor would I fry my breakfast egg in it.

But I used Fruité Noir this morning as an experiment, to make an aïoli to serve with roasted new potatoes for a Labor Day picnic. (Directions below, for anyone who needs them.)

Aïoli in the blue Wellesley mug

And you know what? It tasted exactly like the aïoli I’ve had in Provence on several occasions. Not always, however, because I’ve found that in many of the most traditional Provençale families, they don’t use olive oil at all. Instead, they use Mazola. Mazola? Corn oil? “Yeah,” they said (or the French equivalent of yeah), “we don’t like the strong flavor of olive oil so we always use Mazola.”

Chacun a son goût! (Which could be French for: Go figure!)

Here’s how I make aïoli:

I put a whole egg in the bowl of the food processor, add a pinch of salt, and whizz briefly. Then slowly, slowly, slowly, almost drop by drop, I start adding olive oil through the feed tube, with the machine going. As the oil is added, the sauce starts to come together and you can add it in a thin thread instead of in drops. When it’s almost as firm as store-bought mayo, I whizz in the juice of half a lemon, which loosens it up again, then add more oil—in all, I added about 1/3 of a cup before the lemon juice and another half cup after. Then I sprinkled in a little powdered mustard (not necessary but adds a little spark) and in a mortar I pounded to a paste two crushed cloves of garlic with another pinch of salt. I added that to the processor bowl and whizzed it again for 20 to 30 seconds, just long enough to combine. (Any longer and the process risks bringing out bitterness in the garlic.)

You can keep this covered in the refrigerator for several days, but do keep in mind that it is made with raw egg and you must be cautious about the source of your eggs. I used eggs from a farmer I know. I would never make mayonnaise or any other raw egg sauce with whatever-eggs from the supermarket.


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    5 Comments

  • Reply Michael Melford September 14, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Nancy, you have not told us whether or not you liked the aïoli made with fusty oil. Leaving aside whether it tasted authentic, don’t you prefer it made with oil from freshly picked olives?

  • Reply leslie land October 13, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    I’m with Michael – did you like it?

    Or were you confronted with what I think of as “the authenticity problem.” Been wrestling with it all my life, esp. when more deeply engaged with culinary history. What do we do when the traditional way just plain doesn’t taste as good as some modern variant or other?

    Thus very happy to hear that corn oil is traditional in Province. I’ve always found straight olive oil, however splendid, too heavy for mayonnaise – even when garlic is in there to balance it. We usually use about half and half, so I guess we get half credit.

  • nancyharmonjenkins
    Reply nancyharmonjenkins October 14, 2011 at 6:57 am

    I did say those French I encountered had a tradition of using corn oil, Leslie, but I wouldn’t exactly call it traditional, in the traditional sense, if you know what I mean. All over the Mediterranean, from about the 1980s on, many people switched from their traditional oil (and pork lard) to manufactured commodity oils, in large part because the European Union pushed the market and television and other advertising was rampant. Even in Hungary, hardly part of the Med diet community, I was told, “Oh, our food is much healthier now that we’ve switched from lard to margarine.” Corn oil, mmm, there’s a huge problem with it in the US because it is almost entirely made from GM corn. And it is very high in Omega 6 fatty acids–exactly the kind we should be trying to avoid. No, there are many reasons for using olive oil–but the biggest one, for me, is flavor. If you find olive oil “heavy”–and I’m not totally sure what you mean by that–why not lighten the load. I find the egg yolk is the heavy part–use a whole egg instead. And use an olive oil with a less fruity flavor, maybe an arbequina from Catalonia which is pleasantly nutty and low in the polyphenols that give many oils their strong flavor.

  • Reply leslie land October 14, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Wow, Nancy, thanks for the thoughtful – and speedy! – reply. Organic corn oil is findable (albeit not cheap); I’m already a fan of arbequina oil (whether from Catalonia or elsewhere) and could go on about the rest . BUT, I don’t want to get sidetracked from the original question, which I’m afraid I phrased rather opaquely. Apologies.

    What I wanted to know – although the answer is semi-implicit – is whether you liked the aioli made with fusty but otherwise high class oil, whether the garlic changed the equation in any way. And if you didn’t like it, then what?

    If I read you right, fusty IS traditional, in the traditional sense, so if you’re saying fusty oil should become strictly a thing of the past it follows that you’re advocating a major change in a huge assortment of dishes, indeed entire national cuisines. Hasten to say I have no problem with that. As your dystopian example illustrates, recipes are endlessly mutable. Time does not stand still until everybody is dead.

    But I do think said change raises an interesting question for those of us who are committed to preserving/reviving traditional foods and traditional methods of using them. (Just to be extra clear, I am – and should probably add “of course” – including you in the preservational camp). Where do we draw the line? As in the preservation/restoration of old houses, do we go for the period when built? The upgrade done a century later? The one fifty years after that? This is a genuine question; if there is to be a general rule I haven’t a clue what it would be and would be interested to hear what you think.

  • Reply Liz January 22, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    Where can you find organic corn oil?

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