Friday, June 13, 2008
The Best Of The Best...Aria Olive Oil
Once you try a great olive oil you will never think of it the same way again.
One of the really fun parts of writing a food blog, aside from being a creative outlet, is the opportunity to meet so many other people who are passionate about food and always on the lookout for new ideas and experiences. So, today's post begins a new series I am really excited about myself. It's our first interview and just one of many to follow.
Today's story begins on the island of Crete, the southernmost island of Greece. Here in the hilly terrain olive trees have flourished for literally thousands of years. It's the perfect climate: dry, sunny and temperate. Olive trees abhor excess moisture and thrive in the sun. This is the sunniest piece of land in all of Europe with no chance of an early frost. Before we travel to Crete, however, I ask you to go to your cupboard and look at your olive oil. Chances are it is outdated, high in acidity and may even have a slightly musty smell. If it has been stored in anyplace that is not cool and dark it will spoil even faster. We all use it in cooking but rarely do we actually think about the quality of it.
The Greek isle of Crete, as viewed by satellite.
Back to Crete, where about ten years ago a successful Boston architect was roaming alone in the olive groves that his family had lovingly tended for generations, hundreds of years. Indeed some of the trees actually date back to a thousand years. Each year they carefully collect the harvest just as the olives turn from green to purple. They press the harvest in very small batches and bottle the extra virgin oil in dark green bottles to protect it from the sunlight. He was struck by the beauty of the trees and the real connection to his family and his land. When he arrived back home in Boston he asked his wife: "What would you think of me going into the olive oil business?" The man's name was Emmanuel Daskalakis and that's just what he did.
Emmanuel Daskalakis, whose family grows, harvests, processes, bottles and imports the Aria olive oil brand.
Initially, there were a lot of challenges, mostly from the extended family who were satisfied to keep a little of the oil for themselves and sell the rest to Italian export companies that would take the oil and blend it with others of far lesser quality. It's sort of like taking the finest champagne and pouring it into a vat of ginger ale. "Why not bottle it ourselves and bring it in it's true form to the American market?" he asked. They had no knowledge of modern marketing and the real business of food but Mr. Daskalakis pressed on. The result has been one of the most remarkable olive oil products you will ever taste. He is passionate when he speaks of the smaller operations of Greece and Spain that produces these high quality products. The difference is in the taste. Until you just pour it over a piece of bread and taste it you never had any idea how good olive oil can be. The rich green color and smooth, light texture melts into a fruity elegance just bordering on the sweet. It's incredible.
Emmanuel Daskalakis standing in the silver-hued olive groves in Crete that his family has tended for generations.
So what makes it so great? "We attribute it to the following: first of all the climate. It is the ideal climate for growing olives," Mr. Daskalakis says. Then it is the care of a small family operation. "They take care of trees like they are their children. We also use the Koroneiki olives. We pick them and press them immediately. They are not allowed to sit around for days." This accounts for the extremely low acidity of the product, which is the result of oxidation. The more the crushed olives are exposed to air, the higher the acidity. "God does most of the work and we just take care of it," Mr. Daskalakis laughs.
This is why most of the very top restaurants in Boston use the Aria product. Chez Henri, Hamersly's Bistro, L'Éspalier even Olives and EVOO use the product. "One of my first big breaks came when Todd English tasted the oil and loved it and switched to it," Mr. Daskalakis says. He talks of how his wife will cook entire meals, from appetizer to dessert using only olive oil, no butter. He is determined to bring a better olive oil to people. "How many Americans will spend fifteen dollars on a bottle of wine and drink it in one evening but won't spend that on a bottle of olive oil that will last so much longer? I am on a mission," he says. "And think of the health benefits, too."
Aria's Banana-Blueberry Cake
For the Cake:
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. cake flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 c. milk
2/3 c. chopped banana
1 c. fresh blueberries
For the Topping:
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 T. flour
2 t. cinnamon
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat the surface of a 9-inch round pan with extra virgin olive oil, then dust with flour and tap out the excess.
Beat olive oil with sugar and egg until well mixed. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Stir into olive oil mixture, alternating with the milk. Fold in blueberries and banana.
Mix topping ingredients in a small bowl. Pour cake batter into prepared pan and sprinkle topping over surface. Bake about 30 minutes; place on rack and cool. Serve warm.