You're never too young to learn about olive oil. In Italy, Greece, and other parts of the world where it is the very foundation of cuisine, newborns' lips are often smeared with a little extra-virgin olive oil, even before the first taste of mother's milk, just to make sure the babies get their priorities straight. Last fall I watched my two-year-old grandson stick his forefinger into a stream of our own oil as it flowed from the presses near our home outside Cortona, in Tuscany. He licked his finger and smiled broadly.
I tried a taste and smiled, too. The freshly pressed oil had a bittersweet, vegetal flavor that I still can't quite describe. Almonds? Walnuts? Artichokes? Crushed grass? Green apples? Tomato leaves, perhaps? A little of all those and something more? When it's oil from your own orchard, pressed from olives you harvested painstakingly over several days while keeping a wary eye on the rain-soaked clouds piling up in the west, then it truly seems like a miraculous substance.
You're never too old to learn about olive oil either. Unlike my grandson, I was not born to like the stuff. No one smeared it across my infant lips; in fact, in my mother's house in Camden, Maine, the place for olive oil—a very small bottle of it—was not the kitchen cabinet but the medicine chest, where it was kept on hand as a salve for dry skin.
It was a long time before I discovered what I'd been missing. Even in Spain, where I lived in the late 1960s, olive oil was no treasure. Although almost universally used, it was also almost universally bad, unless you produced it yourself. The olive oil industry was regulated by the government, leaving little incentive to put out a good product, and the market was flooded with shoddy, poorly treated oil. How things have changed since then; today, Spain is the world's largest producer of extra-virgin olive oil and makes some of the finest oils anywhere.
It was not until I moved to Lebanon in the early 1970s—my husband was a foreign correspondent whose posting changed every few years—that I discovered the miracle substance that is good olive oil, and when I did, my conversion was total. Each winter in Beirut, the rich, thick, green oil from ancient groves all across Lebanon's mountains and valleys flowed into city markets. It had an eye-opening, palate-rousing flavor, especially when combined with crushed garlic and fresh lemon juice, and poured over a plate of tabouleh, that salad of bulgur mixed with parsley, tomatoes, and other ingredients. During autumn, I joined friends on trips back to their family farms to share in the harvest and stock up on a year's supply of that fabulous oil.