The market is flooded with extra virgin olive oil, but like chocolate, the variations in quality and price are mind numbing. Nor is price a guarantee of the best flavor. A taste-off was inevitable when a bottle of single varietal O&CO Affiorato (available online) Sicilian extra virgin olive oil from this year's harvest landed on our desk. Particularly in light of our affection for Costco's Kirkland brand olive oil and the fact that O&CO is Provence-based exporter packaging high-end oils throughout the Mediterranean. And here we thought France was all about the beurre.
We pitted the O&CO Affiorato against two premium extra-virgin oils, one at a lower price-per ounce bracket, the other more expensive. Premium here is subjectively defined as region-specific oils with a harvest date indicated on the bottle. The two other oils in the tasting were Tuscan blends: Costco's Kirkland brand Extra Virgin Toscano ($14 for 1 liter/33.8 ounces) and Marchesi de Frescobaldi's Laudemio (about $40; available at Andrew's Cheese Shop and other local specialty markets). Sure, that's one single-varietal Sicilian up against two blended Tuscans, but we are treating this like a dark chocolate tasting of bars from different regions of the world. And we happen to really like those two Tuscans, so it seemed like a well-matched fight. Which was best? Turn the page for the results, and check back for a California edition of our olive oil taste-off.
Note: The two Tuscan oils we tasted were from the 2009 harvest, still within their window of freshness. With premium oils, you want to consume them within two years of harvest; Laudemio adds an expiration date to the bottle cap for this reason (the 2009 "expires" in December of this year). You may find older vintages at deeply discounted prices (like this 2006 Laudemio from a local wine shop), but they won't retain their flavor nuances. In other words, if you're going to splurge, get the most recent vintage available. For us, that was the 2009, but good shops should be replacing those with 2010 bottles as we speak.
Costco's Kirkland brand Extra Virgin Toscano, 2009 Harvest
About $14 for 33.8 ounces (41 cents per ounce)
Full-bodied, fruity taste of freshly pressed olives. That classic Tuscan grassiness was robust; the sort of oil you want to drizzle recklessly over fresh mozzarella (and can, at this price). Color-wise, the greenest of the bunch.
O&Co Affiorato Extra Virgin 2011 (From the 2010 harvest)
$60 for 33.8 ounces ($1.77 per ounce)
Subtle yet distinctly fruity, this oil is made from 100% nocellara del Belice olives by the Ravida family in Sicily. It has more of a just-cut-lawn flavor than the Tuscan oils, and the color is much lighter. Overall, more subtle, something that we imagine using with milder dishes, or simply drizzling over bread.
Laudemio Extra Virgin, 2009 Harvest
About $38 for 16.9 ounces ($2.24 per ounce)
This is a blend of Frantoio, Moraiolo and Leccino grown on the Frescobaldi estate in Chianti Rufina (the family is best known for its wines). It shares that intense, more robust grassy flavor with the Kirkland oil, only here with a distinct peppery finish. This is the "big boy" to pull out when you want a powerhouse oil to feature along with that Super Tuscan wine.
The Verdict: We've long been Laudemio fans, but the price tag has limited us to one bottle a year, if we're lucky. Enter Kirkland's Toscano oil, a ridiculously good olive oil for the price. It has a similar flavor nuances that allows us to pretend we're Frescobaldis for a brief moment, drizzling the oil on everything with wild abandon. That O&CO Affiorato is actually a better price per ounce than the $60 implies, and the flavor is so bright, it fills an entirely new olive oil flavor void we didn't realize we had until we tasted it.
With the Kirkland now available, this Affiorato might just inch out the Laudemio to become our new once-annual splurge. When used for judicious drizzling on cheeses, soups, pastas and the like, we figure we can make this oil last through the summer (we can handle $10 per month). Rest assured, we will not be using a full cup (!!) of this oil to pan-fry vegetables in a minestrone recipe that came along with the bottle. Talk about a flavor -- and wallet -- kill. As O&CO is a third party distributor, we are now insatiably curious about the oils the Ravida family produces under its own label.