Oil vs butter. It reminds me of the boxing match of the century, when Foreman and Muhammad Ali wore their gloves in the Kinshasa ring in 1974 to play for the world title, which Ali will win in the eighth round with a KO. Today I don't necessarily want to look for a winner. As in a still image, I want to go back to that evening in 1974 and tell the story of two boxers, two legends, two icons, humanizing them as much as possible. I don't want to talk about the knockout, the match, but the warm-up, that is, everything that happens before the lights of the arena come on and the fight starts and the two athletes confront each other; I want to tell about the weaknesses and strengths of the man without defenses, when he has not yet worn the gloves, but still only with the bands to protect his knuckles, he warms up with a little free sparring.
It is no coincidence that traditional Northern Italian cuisine is characterized by butter rather than oil. It is no coincidence that Liguria is the exception to the rule and has always privileged oil. It is a purely cultural issue. Before efficient road communication networks were created capable of shortening the distances between North and South (up to the globalization of the markets which also made palm oil prêt a manger), and even before global warming, in the credenza of the Italians there was what the earth gave to man.
The climate of the North, before the climatic upheavals changed the rules of the game, was unsuitable for olive cultivation. Today the climate is changing, and habits are changing too. Can I be incredibly banal and pleonastically affirm that these cultivars represent the territory? Their elegance, their delicacy, the predominance of dried fruit are the leitmotiv of the extra virgin olive oil that characterizes Northern Italy.
Why is butter usually demonized compared to oil, now that you can choose what to put on your plate, regardless of whether you live in Milan or Syracuse? All the controversy revolves around a greater focus on healthy eating, or if we want, on a more modern and "Mediterranean" concept of health. Needless to go around: butter is an animal fat, and as such it contains cholesterol. The oil, on the other hand, is a pure juice of olive free of saturated fats, therefore it not only does not cause cholesterol, but reduces it being rich in oleic acid (reduces the level of LDL cholesterol, "bad", compared to the level of HDL cholesterol, "good"). This same oleic acid is a medicine without contraindications also for the heart, reducing the risk of thrombosis, strokes, heart attacks and neoplasms.
Oil is good for the skin. Squalene protects us against the risk of skin cancer, while polyphenols and vitamin E do the rest ... they do not make us grow old, without selling the soul to the devil as Dorian Gray did.
Extra virgin olive oil has polyphenols of a different nature than hazelnut, sunflower or soybean oil, for example. Here polyphenols enter the field: they act within the cell membranes of our skin, protecting us from diseases and giving us a more elastic skin in spite of the age.
I do not want to be superficial making the oil look like a sort of magic potion prepared by the druid Panoramix to defeat the Romans, but I realize that excessive use/abuse of technical notions does not help with understanding. I am not a doctor, therefore as an oil sommelier after having told you that it is an antioxidant that is good for our health, I will help you recognize it in the oil you taste: polyphenols are that sort of spicy and bitter “slap” that you recognize in the extra virgin. These polyphenols are more clearly recognizable in EVOO than in supermarket oil. Here that's where the shoe pinches! Every time we taste a fresh oil we are disoriented by this spiciness, by this bitter aroma, because (as I have said several times) we are calibrated on supermarket oil as a quality standard, and in that polyphenol oil there are very few ... in supermarkets we find an oil more accessible to our pockets because is the fruit of an over-ripening drupe, that is, of a late harvest: this will lead to a higher yield in quantitative terms (after veraison there is still an increase in the content in oil, but in reality this increase is not real as it is due to a loss of water from the drupe). If instead the olive is harvested at the correct time, in the “inoliation” phase, the pulp decreases the content in water, sugar and acids and increases that in oil. The yield will be much lower, but we will have a greater quantity of pure olive juice loaded with volatile components and polyphenols, Vitamin E specifically, which we can forget in the oils of poor quality, where the oil will be only a bad caloric dressing, without beneficial effect for our health.
Returning to Foreman, he was a valid rival of Ali. They were both two champions with two completely different styles. Oil is more healthy, undeniable, and personally I will continue to prefer it to butter where I can replace it (or, at least, my guilt will be milder) ... but nobody dare take away my French breakfast with Bordier butter, s’ il vous plaît, or I could kill!