Don't be fooled by the sommelier …
Why should we worry about pairings? As an oil and wine sommelier, I often wondered about the meaning of pairing. Is it really necessary? It is an exact science, can you break the rules?
We have therefore kept this word, “sommelier”, and it is here that I have an entirely internal smile to myself. What does sommelier mean, this word that evokes elegance, grace, etiquette rules and gourmet restaurants? Sommelier etymologically speaking, was born from a mangling of an ancient Provencal word, saumalier, which since the early Middle Ages literally identified the profession of “look after beast of burden", which in France was at the time the equivalent of the officer in charge to transport court baggage. Why this long digression? To answer my initial question, which did not want to be exquisitely rhetorical, but provocative. There are codified rules for combining food and wine, like the oil of the rest. It is not an exact science. The ultimate goal is to remain suspended on the wire like tightrope walkers on the toes: in perfect balance. Pursuit of perfection, of the mutual exaltation of food and oil, as in a successful marriage, of those of the past, of my grandparents' Golden Wedding: nobody who wants to prevaricate the other, nobody who wants to say the last word, still keep those cavalry rules a little agèe to give way when etiquette suggests it.
These are pure common sense rules. However, is there anyone who does not like all this balance? I sometimes look for imperfection, look for a scratchy taste, a slap on the palate, disorder. I'm looking for it. I look for it because a rule can be codified, but it becomes a rule that is fine for me, after I have tasted, aware of the bad combination, out of pure curiosity. And the error can be solved either in a pleasant discovery of wrong but fun combinations for me, or, in the confirmation that that codified rule from that moment will also become my rule.
Be creative. Dare. Be Wrong. Don't take us sommeliers too seriously. Trust your palate, because in the end, as François de La Rochefoucauld said: “Happiness lies in taste and not in things; we are happy because we have what we like, and not because we have what others find pleasant ".
I’ll be straight to the point: I’m an iconoclast.
Now let's move on to the rules. Let's break another cliché: becoming familiar with oil is not as easy and intuitive as for wine. On oil we all start from a big starting mistake. True: we produce the best oil in the world. False: that we are really good at recognizing and buying it. I mean: us Italians grew up with oil. As a child, I remember that when I got home for a snack in our mountain village of Ascoli, in my summer holidays, my grandmother used to cut me a slice of unsalted loaf, seasoned it only with the good oil made from grandfather's olive trees, adding just a bit of salt. We grew up with oil and this familiarity was a bit of our own goal: we took it for granted and did not give it its fair value. Cold pressing? Crude oil? Unfiltered oil? Olive oil mill? Extra virgin olive oil? So much confusion.
The sad fact remains that we continue to buy supermarket oil. The problem is not the supermarket itself, but it is what we find on the supermarket shelves: only 20% of that oil is of Italian origin - most is from Greece, Turkey and Spain…a lot from Spain (80%). The trick is that most of the time, we don't know. The leading player on the national market is the Spanish Deoleo, which with their three brands Bertolli, Carapelli and Sasso conquers 25% of the extra virgin olive oil market and just under 40% of olive oils. Welcome to Italy, gentlemen…
Even if we want to overcome this first evidence of our ignorance (literally understood as ignorantia, ie "lack of knowledge”), the second misstep we take is to associate the taste of the supermarket oil, with our Platonic idea of the average quality of the oil. Supermarket oils, at least 80% of the time, have obvious defects of tasting rancid, fusty or winey-vinegary, yet we do not realize it at all. Because? Because we are used to that. When we taste the extra virgin olive oil, harvested in the right moment meaning it’s got a good spiciness, which scrapes your throat and makes you cough, we actually end up not appreciating it. We are almost hostile. Too aggressive, too lashing. Well, that's our oil from the best Italian producers. This is the "good" or real oil, as we like to call it. The first step is therefore not to understand how to combine the oil, but to understand the oil we have in front of us, trying to taste different cultivars, to play with flavors, with combinations. And after this effort, if we want to call it that, we reach the point of no return. You will no longer be able to buy oil in the supermarket.
Here are the rules to help you to find yours.
The first rule to follow, and perhaps the only one that I consider almost dogmatic and essential: taste the oil. Without bread. Bread is a bit like white wine served at too low temperature: it hides all the defects (and as with wine, very chilled, a table wine is also feasible). All you need is a coffee spoon and to simply taste it. You are not a professional taster, swishing it around is not necessary. Smell it, and then simply keep it on the palate. Do not swallow immediately. Chew it, which scares you, I know, it is oil ... it is not wine, but if the oil is done well, you will be surprised at the moment of swallowing. The palate will remain perfectly clean, you will not find any annoying glaze of grease to torment you (if the oil calls for a glass of water, to clean your mouth, it means that it is not a well done oil). After this sensation comes the oil. The spiciness, the fruit, the bitterness. Focus on something you are not used to doing: evaluate the persistence on the palate of the oil. Count: 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... .20 ... 50 .... Infinite depth. When all these elements are present in the oil, the worst is over! When you have become sufficiently confident with quality oil, you will at least know how to distinguish good oil from the one you were used to. It is not an easy step.
Now let's move on to the rules, precisely to those academic rules that I invite you to break, experimenting, because as I usually say: "you learn better from mistakes".
In a perfect world, top quality extra virgin olive oil would be used for everything: from deep frying to a substitute for butter in the preparation of desserts. But good oils are not always so affordable. To deep fry, undoubtedly extra virgin has a stronger flavor than seed oil, however even in this case it is indicated, it has an excellent smoke point. I suggest having a "basic" extra virgin oil in the cupboard for this type of preparation and keeping at least 4 for seasoning raw materials (it will seem crazy to have 4 different oils in the kitchen, but I assure you that once you have learned to distinguish at least one among the 600 Italian cultivars, 4 will not be such a daunting number).
The mechanisms to follow for a successful food / oil pairing is to pair similar profiles: delicate flavors must be combined with a light fruity oil, just to perceive the taste of both raw fish carpaccio for example, since it’s a precious and expensive food that must be respected as such with an oil that does not take the whole scene, but plays as a co-star. With intense and decisive flavors, like a beautiful grilled Fiorentina or a BBQ, an equally aggressive, spicy oil, which enhances its bitter grilled tendency like a battering ram, balancing the sweet and hematic tendency of meat, and gives the right spicy note.
When I say to dare, I mean it. Coratina is a typical Apulian cultivar with a marked bitter tendency; I used to draw a parallel from Coratina to Sagrantino, to help wine lovers to appreciate it, and I think you get the idea. Here, a sensational combination of coratina is dark chocolate, a must experience. We must not be afraid to match oil with sweetness, and mind you, not the "sweet tendency", I mean dessert tout court. The extra virgin olive oil on ice cream, which is now starting to become fashionable, will be the litmus test that will convince you that, at least on this, I was right, and you were mistakenly skeptical.
A life ring, just in case of emergency.
In general, I give you a spare wheel, just in case, to support you to take the first steps, then off the crutches, experiment, fall on the ground, get up and try to walk again with your own legs. Train your palate, which is not the best or the worst compared to the others, but is only and exclusively yours.
Light fruity: deep fried, white sauces, delicate salads, steamed or boiled fish and meat, sautéed for sea fish, sour vegetables. Seafood, pumpkin risotto, white meats, pasta with pesto, pinzimonio, minestrone with veg, mushrooms, pastry.
Medium fruity: fried lake fish, blue fish, legume creams, green sauce, sautéed white meat, fish soup, tomato and mozzarella caprese, meadow salads and orange salad, marinated tuna, stuffed vegetables. Carpaccio of meat or fish, boiled or grilled vegetables. Raw fennel and cucumbers, salads, grilled meat.
Intense fruity: foods with a robust structure such as boiled beef, braised or stew, grilled red meats, legume soups, vegetable soups, ribollita, tomato bruschetta. Mixed salads with rocket, chicory, radishes; cooked vegetables such as cabbage, black cabbage, turnips, sautéed chicory, legumes, mushroom soup, roasts with aromatic herbs, recipes with capers and anchovies, grilled red meat, game, bruschetta, pasta and beans and pasta and
chickpeas. Pizza and focaccia. Swordfish and tuna.