Olive Oil: From Tree to Table

by Peggy Knickerbocker

1997. 168 pages,100+ recipes.

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"I often wonder what my father would think of my extravagant olive oil collection- some two dozen bottles standing in a cool corner of my kitchen, ready to be enlisted into action. He never changed brands. It was always Bertolli in its pewter and copper can, consistent if not exquisite."

Cream-Cheese Cake 

Wild Mushroom Polenta with Escarole Salad 

Yellow Pepper Soup 

Sea Bass in Parchment 

Oven Roasted Asparagus 

Fruit Salad with Minty Vinaigrette 

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"I have not always had twenty-four bottles of olive oil in a cool, dark spot in my kitchen." When I read the opening sentence of Peggy Knickerbocker's Olive Oil: From Tree to Table  I knew I was in the hands of a woman with a serious obsession.

Knickerbocker's mission is to make the reader feel as truly, madly, deeply about the subject as she does. You could be swayed just by looking at the book: smooth, thick pages you can't keep your hands off, voluptuous food photographic still lifes, a luxurious and serene layout. Within this picturesque tableau are Knickerbocker's vivid descriptions of her pilgrimage to the olive orchards and the pressings across the Mediterranean. She recounts olive oil's venerable history and traditions, its harvesting techniques, the hallmarks of the different grades of oil. Impress your friends as you hold forth on the impact of oxidation on the color of olive oil. (This is such a carefully crafted book that I was surprised to find any slip ups. One of the few: when describing the grades of olive oil and their characteristics she omits the category of virgin olive oil.)

Novices will appreciate Kinickerbocker's "How to Buy Olive Oil" section. She lists her recommended brands of olive oils, their origin, and their flavor characteristics. (A connoisseur, but not an elitist, she also gives names of cheaper acceptable brands as good workaday frying oils.) Armed with this list, I was able to  face the vast specialty olive-oil section of my local chi-chi food emporium without feeling intimidated or overwhelmed, and was able to make my selection with a deceptive knowlegability.

I was salivating at her description of an oil pressed with lemons; I was hyperventilating when I saw the price ($18.00 for 7 ounces!). Nonetheless, I took the plunge and laid out more money than I ever thought I'd spend on a bottle of oil. To find out if it was worth the expense I tried one of Knickerbocker's  appetizer recipes, Cream-Cheese Cake, whose taste she claimed hinged on the quality of oil. Sure enough, the oil infused this simple dish an incredible lemon-subtle delicacy. Since then, I have often added it to simple fish dishes and green salads to give them a subtle boost of flavor. Nevertheless, I don't think I'm going to be a frequent buyer of high-end olive oils.

Most of the book is devoted to recipes which showcase the olive oil's varied virtues. Most are Mediterranean inspired with an earth-bound appeal: Fennel Slices with Chilies, Spiced Orange Mayonnaise, Leg of Lamb with Minty Gremolata. The Wild Mushroom Polenta with Escarole Salad was every bit as good as one I'd expect to find in a great little family-run trattoria on a back street in Rome. I was less thrilled with a nondescript Mashed Potatoes with Celery Root and Horseradish. Her Dried Fig Breakfast Bread sounded so  good that I was howling with frustration when it refused to morph beyond a lava-textured blob. I'm assuming it was I who screwed up somehow and am determined to try again.

So far I have managed not to drip olive oil on the thick, silken pages as I'm preparing recipes from the book. But I know from experience that olive oil has an unfortunate affinity for luxurious surfaces whether it be linen blouses or high-grade paper stock. And just as every linen blouse I've ever owned has been accidentally and indelibly doused with droplets of olive oil, I know it's just a matter of time before splotches of olive oil find their way to the pristine pages of this book.Until the inevitable happens, I will feel the same kind of low-level anxiety I get when I wear a beautiful new, dry-clean-only blouse to a restaurant.

I just bought a very smooth, delicious Tuscan olive oil Knickerbocker recommended (and half the price of the lemon number). That will bring my olive-oil count to three bottles. I don't imagine I'll ever get to the point where I have twenty-four bottles olive oil in my kitchen. But I now I feel a certain kinship with the kind of person who does.