Fresh Recipes From Leading Chefs: Olive Oil

photographed by Sian Irvine

Published by Periplus

160 pages, 2000

Buy it online









The Human Touch?

Reviewed by Monica Stark


Olive oil is a miraculous elixir of transformation. Rich, full-flavored and slightly fruity, the nature of olive oil belies its decadent appearance. Usually slightly greenish in color and with a distinctive flavor, the thick pressing of the fruit of the olive tree creates one of the most digestible of cooking oils. Used widely in many cooking styles, especially Mediterranean, it's impossible to imagine another type of oil commanding the type of attention, variety and -- with that -- confusion of the oil of the olive.

In the introduction to Olive Oil some of the confusion is reduced. We are told that extra virgin olive oil is the finest grade and that it "must come from the first cold press. In other words, extracted from the first pressing of the olives, with no heat or chemicals used in the process." Virgin olive oil is also from the first pressing, "but it may have an acidity level up to 4%," as opposed to extra virgin's strict 1 per cent criteria.

The book does not claim that the several pages that run down some of the leading brands of olive oil is all-inclusive, but the section does help with some of the demystifying. In addition, it's quite interesting. The bottling, label art and even the descriptions of the various oils bring to mind discussions of fine wines. In some ways, it's not a bad comparison. Take, for instance, this description of the Chateau Virant French blended extra virgin olive oil:

Made in the Aix region from Aglandeau and Saloneque olives. Citron-green in color with a citrus flavor and hints of eucalyptus and pepper. Long, sunny finish.

However, Olive Oil isn't really about demystification, though that plays a small part. More to the point are the fabulous things you can do with olive oil and that this magnificent oil can do to your food. The recipe section of the book is broken into five main categories: Alfresco, Salads, Dinner Dishes, Light Suppers and Desserts and here is where Olive Oil really shines. Think haute cuisine for the home cook with simple standards like Beef Carpaccio and Grill-Roasted Peppers with Garlic & Olive Oil to more exotic fare like Barbecued Whole Octopus and Layered Sweet Potato Chips with Smoked Chicken & Avocado.

Perhaps the most startling chapter is the one on desserts. After all, olive oil of any type isn't really what jumps to mind when you think about the perfect finish to a meal. Yet Olive Oil has included some wonderful and innovative choices including Mille-feuilles of Olive Oil & Hazelnut Biscuits with Summer Berries; a very finished and elegant-looking Couscous Saffae; the more standard olive oil candidates like Torta Di Pesche and Spicy Carrot & Olive Oil Cake and an absolute show stopper: Banana Pizza with Caramel Sauce.

The recipes are all very clear, well laid out and extremely simple to follow. With very few exceptions, the recipes included can be accomplished in four or fewer numbered steps, which keeps the intimidation factor before embarking on any of these food projects to a minimum.

One of the single most winning elements of Olive Oil, however, is the photography. Sian Irvine, who also photographed the other two books in this series, Inventive Recipes from Leading Chefs with Buffalo Mozzarella and Mushrooms: Mushroom Recipes by Leading Chefs Around the Globe, does a superb job here with world-class food photography that's done justice in both the presentation (many two-page photo spreads are included) and the production (the book is well printed with full color on every page: art books should have it so good). Irvine may also be responsible for the impeccable food styling, but then again: maybe not. No one seems to have considered this tidbit of information important enough to tell either readers or reviewers. A small thing? Perhaps. But it's also indicative of the only thing that's really wrong with this series of books: Lacking an author, Olive Oil and its sister productions don't seem to have a real soul. Even as you leaf through the first-rate recipes and your mouth waters at the appetizing photos, you miss -- even if subconsciously at first -- the inclusion of a human element in this book. There are no faces anywhere.

On the recipe pages themselves the "leading chefs" remain nameless. When you do stumble across the "Contributors" section at the back of the book, the chefs in question are still not given a face. Rather, each chef's contributions are topped with a food photo, followed by the chef's name. On the next line is the name of the restaurant the chef is attached to followed by the included recipes contributed. Sadly missing: each chef's mug shot as well as the city in which the restaurant is located. It may well be that the publisher sought to create a more universal feel for the book by not tying it to a single city or country. But publishers as well as politicians have to remember that all-important advice: you can't please all of the people all of the time and huge compromises bring little beyond mediocrity.

Olive Oil is not a mediocre book. Quite the opposite. It's a very good execution of a solid idea. More: it's a good and useful book that will help even fairly inexperienced home chefs prepare wonderful food in their home kitchens. It could, however, have been a truly excellent book: the best in its field. All that's missing is the human touch. | September 2000


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.