Terra Umbria features all sorts of delicious, locally produced (and authentic regional Italian specialties) foods and goods: candies, liquors, meats, oils, vinegars, bread, more and more and more! I could assemble QUITE the picnic there, if I had to!
We were treated to a little "cooking the Italian way" 101 there, in that we learned how to buy only the best olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
I grew up cooking with olive oil, and using it in lieu of butter on my bread. As someone who likes big flavors, the stronger the olive oil (for dipping my bread, at least!), the better. What I did not really know was how many "extra virgin olive oils" that are out there really aren't exactly that.
Some things to be aware of:
1. Make sure your oil is cold pressed - this is the least adulterated, and most pure.
2. Look for the origin of your oil - does it say where it was produced?
3. Look for a number - what number bottle is your bottle of the total amount produced?
4. Deep green is good - and cloudy is good. Don't be fooled by crystal clear yellow oils - they've been refined beyond recognition. Good oils may also be cloudy - that is just sediment from pressing. If you leave it to sit in a cool, dark place, it will settle to the bottom over time.
And a tip? Always store in a cool, dark place - not by the stove, unless you use it within two weeks!
After tasting oils (I realized on the trip why most of Italy's bread is unsalted... a) because a lot of the food is quite salty, and b) it's better to taste the olive oil with!), we moved on to balsamico.
I've had a couple of great balsamicos in my life, and a LOT of bad ones. All the balsamic vinegars you buy at the local grocery? TERRIBLE! Toss them now! Balsamic is not really to be cooked with. It is a garnish, so to speak. Good balsamic is so flavorful and sweet, you only need a bit. For example, try just tossing your greens in a good olive oil, and sprinkles of fleur de sel. Mound on plates, then drizzle just the slightest bit of balsamic on top. Here are my tips on finding the best balsamic vinegars.
1. All balsamic vinegar comes from Modena - don't be fooled by that!
2. True balsamic vinegar is aged 12 years - but this stuff is typically VERY expensive - you can also find really great balsamic vinegars that are a third of the price and just as good (following the below tips)
3. Make sure the first ingredient (or the only!) on the list is grape must - this is fresh grape juice and includes the skins, seeds, etc). NO red wine vinegar! NO caramel coloring!
4. Good balsamicos will have a bottle number - indicating which pressing it was produced from.
5. The best balsamics will have a paper certification around the neck - DOP certification
So, where do you find good products like these in the States? I would guess Dean and Deluca, and Eli Zabar's (in NYC). I know for sure that O & Co has an AMAZING balsamic vinegar, and a wide array of good olive oils at their shops - they will even let you taste your way around the shop before you purchase!
We purchased a lot of olive oils, and a couple of balsamic vinegars, in Italy to bring back to the States. Thank goodness, since regular dressings have lost their appeal to me, and nothing brings back memories of Italy like these products do!