The word “meticulous” comes to mind whenever I'm describing Majid Mahjoub's’ extra virgin olive oil, made on his century-old estate in Tunisia.
The attention to detail starts with the trees and olives. All the olives for his oil are grown organically without irrigation—a step that, while risky, makes for more intensely flavored fruit. All the olives are picked by hand. It’s labor intensive work but better for the olives than mechanical means, which can often damage and bruise the fruit. The harvested olives are moved quickly to their stone mill and pressed within hours of harvest, which makes for a better, longer lasting oil.
It's at the pressing stage where even greater care is taken, where processes that have fallen out of use are still employed. The olives are crushed by granite stones that, though they are the method used to make oil for thousands of years, are almost extinct today, replaced by continuous press machines and hydraulic screw presses. The olive paste is spread by hand, not machine.
And finally the water that's part of the output from pressing is skimmed off the top by hand, not separated mechanically by centrifuge. This ancient method, ladling one scoop of water at a time, is called fui. It is almost never done today. In fact, I've been to dozens of oilmakers over the last two decades and never seen it once. Majid thinks it adds a subtlety to his oil, though he comments on it in unsubtle terms. "This oil is not extra virgin. It’s immaculate conception."
Last but not least, it's important to note that the primary olive varietal Majid grows, Chetoui, is known for its ability to blend with other foods. Since olive oil is used in almost everything Majid makes and eats, he looks for flavors that meld, not overwhelm. He describes his search as one for "olive oil with a subtle personality. I don’t want oil that imposes itself.”
All this care may sound like a mechanic raving about what's under the hood of a car. Who cares? How does the car drive? How does the olive oil taste? The latest pressing, picked in 2013, smells to me like yeasty rising bread dough. The texture is silky. The flavor starts buttery and nutty, quickly builds to a strong bitterness, and has a lingering peppery finish that sneaks up on you.
Great for everyday cooking. Its flavors work in all sorts of dishes, so don't be afraid to use it liberally.