Heroes of Oil: Erin O’Brien and Joe Hennessy

Tasting is believing.  You can read about great olive oils, and their vast superiority over bad oils, all you want.  You can hear folks talk about the subject, you can watch videos on it.  But until you try first-rate olive oil for yourself – actually put the good stuff in your mouth, and compare that experience to the bad stuff you’ve eaten in the past – you won’t really get it.  You won’t fully believe there’s a problem, or, in your heart of hearts, that all the fuss over bad oil is entirely justified.

Once you taste fine olive oils and their low-class imitations, though, you start to care.  I recently received this letter from Erin and Joe, two Truth in Olive Oil readers, about an olive oil tasting party they’d just thrown with nine friends.  Their oil fête, which commemorated Erin’s 42nd birthday, is a model for how people can educate themselves about the diversity of olive oils, and see how those oils interact with different foods.  With their permission I’m sharing their experiences below, together with the complete menu for the meal at the bottom of the letter.  With Erin’s help, I’ll soon be writing guidelines for organizing an olive oil dinner, which will allow people to taste for themselves the incredible range and culinary versatility of quality olive oil, not to mention the huge difference between it and the other stuff.

Dear Tom,

Last night I hosted an Olive Oil Tasting dinner party and I thought you might enjoy hearing about the event and the 11 new converts singing the praise of real EVOO from where we live in Madison, WI.

I purchased your book as a Christmas gift for my husband, Joe Hennessy, after hearing you interviewed on NPR. When he finished, I picked it up, and thus began our feeble exploration into good oils.  We followed your instructions, picked dark bottles, checked for harvest and expiration dates, and steered clear of anything Italian from the local grocer. But we also suspected that we hadn’t yet found the really good stuff.

When reading your book I was most enamored of the scenes describing the meals shared with the producers. “I want that experience,” I thought, “and I want to share it with friends.” Thus the seed was planted for the party. I used my 42nd birthday as the excuse to finally throw it.

I used your blog to locate purveyors of quality oils in Wisconsin and visited Oliva di Vita in Delafield a couple weeks before the event.  The oils, and the owners, were amazing  and I walked out with three 250 ml bottles – oils called Coratina & Favolosa from Chile and something called Manzanillo from Spain.

The meal planning was a blast. I scoured cookbooks for simple recipes that would let the oil be the star. I went to the best cheese shop in town (a terrific place called Fromagination) and received help from a young cheese maker whose entire family lives in Sicily.  She exuberantly recommended cheeses while simultaneously, describing her family’s love affair with oil (“we put it in our hair, on our skin, in our food”).  We landed on a true Parmesan Reggiano (from Parma), a creamy and peppery Provolone from Tuscany, and a Wisconsin-made parmesan-style sheep milk cheese.

Now for the tasting and meal itself:

We rearranged the furniture in our 700 square foot house and laid out a table for 11.  In addition to the oils mentioned above, we had a small tin of oil one of the guests had brought back from Corfu earlier in the summer, and another Greek oil obtained at a local grocer. We also had a Californian Arbequina with a stamp from the California Olive Oil Council.

We started the night with an introduction to your book and some of what we’d learned. Then we got underway. We used plastic tasting cups to taste the oils one at a time, starting with the most robust from Oliva di Vita and ending with the two Greek varieties.   No slurping, just sipping.  We talked about each variety as we went and used tart green apples to cleanse our palettes in between.  The discussion was animated and thoughtful.

As you can imagine, there was quite a ruckus when we finally tasted the supermarket oil (foul doesn’t begin to describe it).  The big surprise of the night was that the oil from Corfu was even worse than the grocery store brand. Helen, the friend who purchased it and had devoured her own bottle of the same variety at home, was stunned.  She’s the daughter of Greek immigrants and one of the best cooks I know.  She had also read your book, but hadn’t yet done a true tasting with verifiably EVOO oils.

After the sipping, we went on to food.  We started with a tomato & basil bruschetta on grilled toasts and then moved to the cheeses with bread.  The oils were on the table with pour spouts and everyone just experimented and shared what they thought about how each oil tasted with the different foods and how much the flavors of the food changed with each oil.  Having made the point, I had set the bad oils aside, but my husband brought them back to the table to go a little deeper into the experiment. He tried them again with food, exclaiming “this is disgusting” and “it’s even worse with food” after each bite.  He persuaded most of us to also try the bad oils with food and there was a chorus of agreement and a spectacular array of facial expressions confirming his reaction.

From there we got really serious about the eating.  I’ve included the menu below as much for my own records as anything, but I wanted to close by sharing a few of the revelations from the evening.

My friend Elsa from Mozambique, who is another sensational cook, said “I really can’t believe this…I always just cooked with whatever.”

My friends Tom and Erri made a date on the spot to take a road trip to Oliva di Vita (45 minutes away) to taste and buy oils.

The most robust of the oils, the Coratina, was hands down the favorite of the night, though all agreed it did not pair well with the Provolone (the Manzanillo, on the other hand, did).

The three of us who had read the book and knew what to expect agreed on two things:
1. We were convinced by what we’d read in your book, but there’s really no understanding it until you’ve tasted good and bad, side by side.

2. The difference in taste and texture between the EVOOs and the imposters was more pronounced than even we had been prepared for.  We no longer wonder if the disgusted cries of “Lampante!” are hyperbole.

We also had a great time talking about the defects and trying to figure out what we had been exposed to. Greasy and flabby were definitely in the mix, we guessed rancid and fusty too.  Whatever they were, none of us want to experience them again.

So thank you, and congratulations. You now have 11 more avid eaters, with our purchasing power and our soapboxes, joining you in your crusade.  Thanks too for giving me an excuse to throw a fabulous party!

Erin O’Brien
Madison, WI

Menu for our Extra Virginity-inspired Olive Oil Tasting Party, which Joe and I cooked together:

1. Tomato & basil bruschetta paired with the oils of the eaters’ choice

2. Cheese (a Tuscan Provolone and sheep milk “Parmesan” paired with the oils of the eaters choice.

3. Pear, basil, and Parmesan Reggiano (the real thing), drizzled with oil (Favolosa).

4. White bean salad with rosemary (and olive oil).

5. Aioli for drizzling over grilled vegetables (zucchini, mushroom, peppers), roasted beets & onions, chick peas, and hard boiled eggs.  We made two batches of aioli, one with the Coratina, and one with the Arbequina.

6. Side dishes include caramelized brussel sprouts with shallots and pancetta (the only meat in the meal), and wilted greens (beet and chard from our garden).

7. French vanilla ice cream with oil (Manzanillo), sea salt, and a little Italian wafer.  This one sent everyone to the moon!

Other than a little lemon and a couple fresh herbs, the only flavorings added were sea salt, pepper, and EVOO.

And it was one of the best meals any of us have ever had.


Hey all,

Hey all,

First, congratulations, Erin and Joe, for really getting direct experience of the difference that fresh, well-made oil makes.

Since you have had the full store-to-spread experience, why not put in a review on Tom's new interactive page for Oliva di Vita?

Tom, you write that "With Erin’s help, I’ll soon be writing guidelines for organizing an olive oil dinner". Great idea! One improvement I'd suggest on their protocol: decanting all the oils into identical, unlabeled, preferably dark-tinted bottles, to make a completely blinded taste test. Take the expectations out of it, and let pure sensation flow from the drizzle to the palate.

I own an olive oil and

I own an olive oil and vinegar store and I say "HI FIVE" to you for doing what you did. In our presentations we usually do the bad stuff first, but you have a different take on it! Might try it your way next time!

I enjoyed reading your

I enjoyed reading your article very much and congratulations for experiencing and converting to real EVOO. But, I was a bit taken back by your statement "and steered clear of anything Italian from the local grocer". Why would you say that? I don't remember reading anything like that in Tom's book?
Several years ago I discovered my roots in a small mountain top village called Oliveto Citra (SA) in the Campania Region of Italy. My Grandfather was born there. In the village there is a company called Oleificio Dell'Orto, a Private Family Estate, established in 1870 producing olive oil from their own orchard as well as from neighboring orchards. I have helped with the harvest and have been importing Dell'Orto Extra Virgin Olive Oil since 2006. Our oils are mostly sold on our web site, in gourmet markets on the East Coast, as well as in Whole Foods markets. Dell'Orto Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Organic, and DOP are certified by the Mediterranean Institute (IMC) prior to exporting to the US. And yes, our oils are Extra Virgin, unadulterated (never mixed or blended with inferior oils), sold only in dark bottles or tins, and always dated for freshness. Our Extra Virgin Olive Oils have won many awards in the LA County International Olive Oil Competition. We always preach the importance of quality Extra Virgin Olive Oils at schools, tastings at fairs, fundraises, and stores that carry our products. We are passionate about our olive oil, so please don't give all Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oils a bad rap because not ALL Extra Virgin Olive Oils are created equal.
Lurgio Imports LLC

Hi Dennis,

Hi Dennis,

I don't know Erin and Joe and won't pretend to have read their mind, but I'm GUESSING that the reason they avoided 'Italian' olive oils is that, as Tom discusses in the book, so much olive oil is deceptively marketed as 'Italian' because of its history as an olive oil-producing nation: as I'm sure you know, nearly all of the supermarket brands, and a lot of small and shady operations, use branding, imagery, and ambiguous wording to give the impression that their oil is Italian when it was, at most, bottled in Italy from a mixture of Italian and non-Italian oils. And, conversely, any oil openly declaring itself to be from some non-Italian location comes on the market as a bit of an underdog, and has to distinguish itself with something other than reflected glory. As a result, I think, it's easy to immediately become suspicious of any oil claiming to be from Italy.

Hello Tom, Thank you for

Hello Tom, Thank you for your interest in our award winning Dell'Orto Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Please advise where you would like me to send samples.

On another note, I spoke to you several months ago about the availability of your book in Italian. I haven't been able to locate a copy and was hoping to give it as a Christmas gift. Any suggestions? Looking forward to hearing from you. Dennis Lurgio

Hi Dennis,

Hi Dennis,

So sorry for the oversimplification about Italian oils and thanks for pointing it out. It was sobering to learn that I'd been consuming substandard Italian oils for years. But it's also great to be learning about the many producers who are still out there honoring this ancient craft and bringing great oils to market. We have a Whole Foods here in Madison so I'll definitely look for your EVOO next time I stop in.

So much to learn....

Thanks, Erin

Thanks, Erin
I understand your frustration. I know many people purchase olive oil by price which hurts the good olive oil producers. Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil cannot be made cheaply.
If you would like to try our olive oils please visit our web site: www.dellortooil.com I would be happy to split the shipping cost if you are interested. Dennis

What a fun table that looked

What a fun table that looked like to hang out/share/sit at and be a part of all that tasting!
The best olive oil- Carothers' Olive Oil. My little company is just beginning to grow, not the hype it deserves. Working on this. Carothers' is a Spanish, extra virgin olive oil that is a must try and once you do I am thinking you will stay! http://carothersoliveoil.com

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