On a recent rainy monday night, a group of students at the Italian Culinary Center off Madison Square Park assiduously take notes as their instructor demonstrates the proper way to taste olive oil. Paolo Villoresi, who looks a little like Sir Peter Ustinov, ceremoniously bows his head to meet a tiny cup of green-gold estate-bottled oil from his native Tuscany. He inhales deeply, then sticks his tongue out like a lizard, just barely grazing the extra-virgin elixir, makes a loud Hannibal Lecter slurping noise, and smacks his lips.
Half travelogue and half cooking lesson, the $220 four-session program -- at its conclusion students become "certified olive oil consultants," with diplomas and lapel pins to prove it -- is the latest manifestation of the American fetishization of artisanal ingredients, from bread and cheese to coffee and, now, tea, a previously humble beverage that has this year engendered an entirely new job description -- the tea sommelier.
"What are the organoleptic properties of this olive oil?" Villoresi quizzes his students. "What does it taste like?"
"Almonds?" asks one tentatively.
"You cheated," says Villoresi. "You read that in the book."
It's true: Great olive oil is still virgin territory for most Americans. But not for long. The Culinary Institute of America has just commenced construction of the Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine, suggesting a new, monounsaturated direction in American cuisine. In California, the birthplace of nearly every American food trend, boutique E.V.O.O. (as it's abbreviated on menus) is offered at a supplementary price at restaurants like Chez Panisse and Campanile. It doesn't hurt that olive oil is riding the crest of the Mediterranean-diet wave. Restaurant consultant Clark Wolf calls it "the one unscathed edible in all the food-police attacks and counterattacks in the last twenty years." But it takes more than health benefits for a foodstuff to become a status symbol. Remember oat bran? There must be historical arcana (Cleopatra used it as perfume), an insider's lexicon (Tuscans are prized for their pizzica, or sharp afterbite), and a considerable cash outlay (a three-quarter-liter bottle can command up to $50). "New Yorkers enjoy that mystique of knowing more than the next guy," says olive-oil student and food consultant Tony Volpe. And when we think we're authorities on any subject, we really like to pour it on.