The perfect match after 6000 years*
By Don Polly
The relaxing and congenial pre-dinner breaking of bread and dipping it in oil is as old as… well, dinner itself. New Zealand is fast catching up. Today in Kapiti, they are even matching the perfect organic oil to the perfect organic bread.
The ancient traditional practice of dipping bread into olive oil, called meze, originated in early Greece mythology. It probably served as the original apertif, or entrée, and when times were tough, even the meal itself. Its qualities as a genuine appetiser are legendary.
Only in recent times have New Zealand restaurants started offering bread and oil dip as a standard pre-dinner hors d'oeuvre, and like the wine list of 30-years ago, a choice of oil and bread is finally beginning to be an option.
The first successful New Zealand olive grove was established in Marlborough in 1992. A commercial olive grove is a major undertaking, requiring a minimum of 16 acres, 2000 trees, and up to ten years to produce. The odd olive tree or three in the backyard, apart from aesthetic purposes, doesn't mean a thing.
The annual New Zealand olive crop varies, producing at least 50 tonnes of oil during an average year. It is clearly of a high international standard largely because of our very special Mediterranean microclimate. Much of the annual crop is exported to Europe and North America. Birds are a very big problem often forcing growers to harvest the olives early.
Fran Kennedy, owner of the Kapiti Olive Shop in the famed Lindale Centre in Paraparaumu admitted that most people are not yet aware of how strong and different olive flavours can be. Each cultivar, she says, has its own flavour, and this in turn is governed by soil, climate, and moisture from year to year. Only Extra Virgin oil should be used for dipping.
"The rules," Fran says, "are simple. Olive oil for dipping should be neither overly cooled nor excessively heated. It should be stored in a dark, cool place. Even sealed, the shelf life of oil is only about a year. The best way to sample olive oil seems sloppy, but it is effective. Professional tasters put a few drops in the palm of the hand, let it warm, and lick it off the hand.
"When dipping bread with friends, it's best to break off a piece, dip, eat, and savour the flavor. During a public tasting, only small individual bite-sized wafers are provided."
On the subject of bread, Fran is equally precise. "We prefer to have an organic bread matched to an organic oil," she says. "There are a number of organic oils available. Unfortunately, the number of really good organic breads is very limited."
Fran says diners should ask the restaurant where the oil is from and what bread they are using. "They probably won't know, but by asking, they'll start finding out - if only to be up with the play. A favourite bread matched with a special oils can be as discerning and pleasing to the taste as certain wines are with certain meats.
"Being the only large commercial olive oil shop in New Zealand, we are often called upon to provide tastings. The bread needs to be fresh, soft, and strong, and most importantly have a taste of its own. Our general preference is for the Purebread Family Loaf. It has the necessary honeycomb texture and old-time flavours. It's totally organic, like the Purebread Potato Loaf, which is our second choice."
Both Purebread and the favoured Kapiti Gold extra-virgin olive oil are certified NZ BioGro.
Purebread bakeries in Paraparaumu deliver seven varieties of organic bread including sourdough, and both gluten-free and wheat-free bread fresh to stores throughout New Zealand.