Afoot in Virgin Territory

Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil
By Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

Reviewed by Cheryl Angelina Koehler, editor of Edible East Bay

Surprisingly, in this year of drought, California producers of extra-virgin olive oil are seeing a record harvest. Their groves, many planted in the last decade, run extensively through our state and are regarded as more sustainable than those of the corporate nut farmers. As of this writing olives are being milled into olive oil, and aficionados of the golden-green juice of this bitter fruit are enjoying their much-anticipated first tastes of olio nuovo, the freshest, greenest, and most pungent olive oils pressed each fall from the early harvest. As riper fruit is processed in coming months we’ll see the softer oils used in most kitchens arriving in the markets. Because olive oil is always best when fresh, there is no better time than right now to learn more about using and enjoying this great local product.

It is partly because of writers like Nancy Harmon Jenkins that Americans today appreciate the great flavors and positive health values of the Mediterranean diet, which relies heavily on olive oil. Jenkins made a home for herself in Italy in the early 1970s and on her land discovered an antique olive grove. Intrigued by the nearness of the ancient agricultural practice within her community, she renovated the grove, planted new trees, and took on the challenge of learning how to produce olive oil. She also traveled and studied extensively throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, learning about olive oil production and how it plays into the various cuisines.

In Virgin Territory Jenkins offers 100-plus recipes covering a range of Italian classic dishes that feature olive oil, plus key examples from other olive oil–based cuisines around the Mediterranean. Readers might just as easily be lured into making falafel, Palestinian maqloubeh (upside-down rice with eggplant), latkes, or shakshouka (a spicy tomato and pepper base for frying eggs) as they might feel tempted by Jenkins’s recipes for pistou, gazpacho, risotto, or spaghetti aglio-olio.

What I enjoy most about the organization of this book, however, is the way Jenkins places key recipes—such as for ribollitta (a Tuscan bean soup), tortilla Espanola (the quintessential Spanish tapa of eggs and potatoes), and epityrum (a tapenade recorded by Cato the Elder in second/third-century BCE)—within and as illustration to her ample essays. Essay topics range from her enchanting personal story on through olive oil history, explanations of the various grades (with all the reasons why you should buy nothing but extra-virgin), production methodology and practice, the science behind all the health claims, and expert pointers on purchasing olive oil. If ever there were a definitive book on the ways and reasons for enjoying olive oil, this would be it.