Green Gold

When I think of olive oil, like most people, the first thing that comes to mind is Spain or Italy, two regions well-known for producing some of the world’s best olive oils. But at a recent event featuring 22 olive oils from Argentina, it was clear that this country should also be considered a player to watch in the industry.

Like wine, olive oil takes on characteristics of its terroir, and like wine, olive oil ranges in quality and flavour. As Argentina is such a geographically diverse country – ranging from mountainous regions to a long coastline – influences on flavour (as with wine) are great.

Although olive trees arrived in the new world with the Spanish conquest, olive oil production in Argentina is a relatively recent industry – prior to the 1990s, the oil was thought to not be of very good quality and was often used in blended table oils. But by 2003, tens of thousands of hectares of olive trees had been planted, many on modern plantations with drip irrigation, and output has increased to around 100,000 pounds per year.

The majority of the oils we sampled came from the Mendoza and La Rioja regions – both inland and mountainous. About half of the oils on offer were grown on small, family-run farms, but the rest were actually from co-operatives where two or three plantations worked together. As well, many of the oils sampled were blends of different olive varieties, including Arbequina, Arauco, Manzanilla and Picual olives.

All of the oils we sampled were extra virgin, and were meant to be consumed fresh – these are oils meant for salad dressing or alone with bread as opposed to cooking oils. A few of the samples were also organic.

Flavours ranged from sweet and fruity to grassy, spicy and even bitter. Some had a natural spiciness while others were redolent of dried fruit. Compared with olive oils from Spain and Italy, Argentinian oils tend to be lighter and fruitier overall.

Since Argentina is south of the equator, their growing season is opposite ours, so this year’s crop has just been harvested and pressed. The representative from the Argentina Olive Group had on hand not only the 2009 oil for sampling but a bottle of this year’s oil, straight from the press within the past week. We were astounded by the bright green colour, and when we compared them taste-wise, the difference was remarkable with the 2010 oil being obviously fresher and brighter. That’s not to say that last year’s vintage was unpalatable, but it does demonstrate that olive oil is a live product that is best consumed as fresh as possible.

Our favourite oil of the tasting actually had no name. Coming from a family plantation in San Juan that is only 2 years old, the product is not yet available for sale. Chef Chris Brown from The Stop was on hand, serving up dishes made with some of the oils being sampled, and he pointed us in that direction when we arrived, declaring it his favourite. It was a pretty bright, and almost sweet olive oil that very much differentiated itself from the others. When I suggested serving it drizzled over ice cream or using it in a cake, as is done in Southern Italy, the representative was aghast. But Brown later echoed my sentiment, pointing out that he too thought of using it for ice cream when he tasted it.

Here in Toronto, Argentinian olive oil is still hard to find. The Olive Pit (877 Queen Street West) carries one brand of organic oil ($14.95 for 375mL), but we’re hoping to see more of it in specialty stores across the city as word gets out about this new player on the olive oil scene.