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by LICIA GRANELLO Journalist for "La Repubblica"

Extra virgin is beautiful. But, above all else, it is good. It is fragrant, harmonious, tempting, intoxicating, tasty, strong, lively, fiery. There aren't enough adjectives: the variety of notes, colours and fragrances of the Great Oil are such that our vocabulary doesn't seem to have enough words to describe them all. Because the extra virgin is a simple yet complex creature, banal and refined: depending on the labels, depending on the quality.

Throughout the years, we have overcome the perception of those who considered it fattening, greasy, redundant. The so-called light oils used to be popular: advertisements where people skipped fences and lost weight seemingly in real time. The Apulian "verdone" or the Tuscan "rustico" were considered just part of our rural heritage, only good for seasoning a bruschetta and not much else. The wealthiest and the smartest used Ligurian oils because they have always been considered light and associated with regional cuisine, which mostly involves fish and vegetables.

Fortunately, modern nutritional science has finally dispelled myths and prejudices, false messages and hearsay. Starting with the calorie tables, which have defined vegetable oils with minimal differences: a tablespoon of the richest Sicilian extra virgin is on the same level as the lightest seed oil... Having corrected the many false accusations pinned onto the most blameless and healthy of all food items, the extra virgin has become the star of many studies and of ever more refined and keen competition.

If thirty years ago oils of different origins were blended so as to correct defects and cover fragrances that were considered unrefined, today high quality productions view blends as dreadful shortcuts, while research aims at bottling brands that are ideally always more identifiable and traceable, with elegant containers for elegant fragrances and firm, clear flavours that have no defects or unpleasant aftertastes.

The increasing popularity of olive oil has been miraculous: the countryside is being cared for, extraction systems have grown ever more respectful of the raw material, and recipes have evolved, turning extra virgin into the star of haute cuisine.

All of this, of course, is thanks to the "blessed" olives. Finally in the limelight, once their antioxidant and probiotics content is transformed into oil, it makes a product worth using from infancy to old age. Dozens of varieties highlight just as many different types of extra virgins, either pure or blended, for a wonderful biodiversity which we must strenuously defend from the monster of standardized taste. Democratic, ubiquitous, but also extraordinarily rich in nutrients.

Of course, there is still much confusion in the realm of olive oil, especially at the consumer level: many are fooled by TV advertisements spoken in regional dialects, which create a link between brand and territory that is often false, if not downright fraudulent. But regulations are growing stricter, and the large amount of available information is making these tricks less profitable.

On the other hand, having a bottle of high quality extra virgin on the table has become a sign of gastronomic awareness, or even a true status symbol. What is more: the number of high profile restaurants - on both sides of the globe - that greet diners with small jars of extra virgin at the table have increased exponentially........ the oil comes served with an array of seasoned breads: onion, bacon, tomato, rosemary.

Another popular proposal is comparison tasting: at this stage of our gourmand training, being told an oil is good is simply not enough anymore. Tasting helps discover what goes best with a salted turbot steak or a beef carpaccio, to season fresh robiola cheese or to use as filling for a small chocolate pastry (delicious!).

In this regard, chefs and wine shop owners (their establishments are privileged selling points for the so-called niche market oils), but also the people in charge of the most innovative supermarkets, have been doing a lot. They are teaching people not to trust colour as an absolute, since rather than an incorruptible sign of quality, it can be "enriched" by adding chlorophyll. They also explain that picking fruits while still not fully ripe can enhance that spiciness felt at the back of the throat, while picking late yields a mellower character which goes better with elegant dishes, although the latest trends in olive growing aim at picking just when fruits are in the first ripening stage, when olives are just starting to change colour, turning from green to dark-brown, so as to obtain the utmost fruitiness and the least acidity.

Being offered a tablespoonful or the mythical blue glass is not such a rare event anymore. And no one is shocked if, from a table next to theirs, they hear that sucking sound of oil passing through tongue and palate, which helps best appreciate its flavour. Because being able to appraise the different types of extra virgin is becoming fashionable, just like what happened a few years ago with wine (and which tomorrow will happen with chocolate and charcuteries).

Extra virgin is not just popular in Italy, although our country is still a point of reference for the gastronomic realities of other countries.

Extra virgin has become an extraordinary and essential "jack of all trades", whether cooked or uncooked. There is nothing lighter for frying, no better seasoning for a tasty salad or a fragrant soup. Because its smoke point - when oil molecules start to degrade and become toxic - is the highest, which means it is healthier for frying; because the right kind of oil enhances the fragrance of green leaves and blends well with the acidity of tomatoes; because the tastiest dish of pasta with beans is nothing without a dash of extra virgin. And some people dare say it's just a seasoning.