When I first married, I stocked the pantry with a can of affordable Spanish olive oil sourced through a friend. But as time meandered along and finances became more secure, I began to buy better quality oil, until I was using an organic variety procured at our local flea market. Somewhere along the line, I also purchased a bottle of high-end Italian olive oil at an upscale Tokyo supermarket.
One spring day I found myself home alone fixing a solitary dinner. I harvested a few heads of the gorgeous red oak leaf lettuce I had planted from seed, mashed some garlic in a mortar with a few pinches of Japanese sea salt, added some ground Tellicherry black pepper and splashed in my homemade red wine vinegar. What olive oil did I reach for to finish it? The high-end Italian.
Using such an oil on a beautiful salad is not hard to grasp for any of us who care about what we are eating. However, using a pricey oil on everything — including sauteed foods — is more of a stretch for most. The expense adds up. Nonetheless, I found that the tastes of our simple field vegetables were greatly elevated once sauteed in the better oil (with Japanese sea salt).
Olive oil is not the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Japanese ingredients. Yet Shodoshima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea is home to thousands of olive trees. “Olive island,” as it is known, has been producing Japanese olive oil since 1908.
While I did buy some of Shodoshima’s olive oil at a food event 15 years ago, Japanese olive oil slipped off of my radar in the intervening years. But recently I have found myself traveling to Shodoshima to explore its strikingly delicious native olive oils such as Olive no Mori produced by Shodoshima Healthy Land and Takao Olive Farm’s Takao Nouen no Olive Hatake. Admittedly expensive, these oils have been garnering gold medals in prestigious competitions such as the Los Angeles County Fair (Olive no Mori) and the New York International Olive Oil Competition (Takao Nouen no Olive Hatake).
What sets these oils apart is the small scale of their production, their location on Shodoshima, the care that goes into the trees themselves and, of course, the blending of the olives after pressing.
Touching the bark of Olive no Mori’s 1,000-year-old olive tree that overlooks the Seto Inland Sea, I felt the power of the ages. Although the president of Healthy Land transplanted the tree here in 2011 from Spain, the tree symbolizes the deep historical roots that lie behind the ancient food culture of olive oil. We stand under its spreading branches while Atsuhiko Utsumi, an olive tree expert, gently shakes the branches to dislodge residual flowers that did not become tiny olive buds. This operation relieves the tree from the job of trying to extricate them itself, akin to deadheading rose bushes. The tree can thus focus its energy on growing flavorful olives rather than sloughing off unneeded dead flowers.
“Things that grow in the field become happy if you touch them,” says Utsumi.
While I did not visit Takao Olive Farms, I spoke with its owner, Toyohiro Takao, at an olive oil dinner in Tokyo. A slight man, he has a gentle demeanor that comes through in his olive oil. I was also taken with what he says about his trees.
“Each tree has a different personality and when I walk among them I compliment them, ask them how they are feeling, bid them good morning,” he says. Again, the personal touch here is key. Nonetheless, sold in precious 64-gram bottles for about ¥2,000, the Takao Nouen no Olive Hatake olive oil is not for everyday use — or for everybody.
As a writer of Japanese cookbooks, I have always recommended using rapeseed (canola) oil for most dishes, but since visiting Shodoshima during the past six months, I have begun using olive oil often when preparing dishes for Japanese food events. The fruity, sometimes spicy character of the oil lends character to the kind of farm food that I tend to serve. A good olive oil holds up to the strong flavors of soy sauce and fish sauce and enhances those two seasonings. However, I would not pair it with miso, which has an unctuous flavor profile like olive oil, but one at the opposite end of the spectrum.
So what exactly constitutes a “good” olive oil? It goes without saying that extra virgin olive oil is the oil of choice. Extra virgin means an oil has been produced by pressing whole olives to extract the oil without heat or chemicals. Otherwise, good olive oil should be clear, bright and, well, drinkable.
On two different visits to Shodoshima we made our way to Shimayado Mari, an inn that successfully infuses traditional living with modern comforts. Dinner there culminates with a pot of olive rice cooked in an Igayaki donabe earthenware pot, which yields the coveted crunchy rice at the bottom of the pot called okoge. The olive rice is served with a drizzle of Takao Nouen no Olive Hatake or Olive no Mori olive oil and a pinch of local salt. It’s heavenly.
Shodoshima Healthy Land’s Olive no Mori, 0120-11-7677. For more information, visit www.healthyolive.com. Takao Olive Farms’ Takao Nouen no Olive Hatake, 050-3673-9320. For more information, visit www.takao-olives.com.