Making Japan’s award-winning Olive no Mori variety of olive oil

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“Things that grow in the field become happy if you touch them,” says Utsumi.

While I did not visit Takao Olive Farms, I spoke with its owner, Toyohiro Takao, at an olive oil dinner in Tokyo. A slight man, he has a gentle demeanor that comes through in his olive oil. I was also taken with what he says about his trees.

“Each tree has a different personality and when I walk among them I compliment them, ask them how they are feeling, bid them good morning,” he says. Again, the personal touch here is key. Nonetheless, sold in precious 64-gram bottles for about ¥2,000, the Takao Nouen no Olive Hatake olive oil is not for everyday use — or for everybody.

As a writer of Japanese cookbooks, I have always recommended using rapeseed (canola) oil for most dishes, but since visiting Shodoshima during the past six months, I have begun using olive oil often when preparing dishes for Japanese food events. The fruity, sometimes spicy character of the oil lends character to the kind of farm food that I tend to serve. A good olive oil holds up to the strong flavors of soy sauce and fish sauce and enhances those two seasonings. However, I would not pair it with miso, which has an unctuous flavor profile like olive oil, but one at the opposite end of the spectrum.

So what exactly constitutes a “good” olive oil? It goes without saying that extra virgin olive oil is the oil of choice. Extra virgin means an oil has been produced by pressing whole olives to extract the oil without heat or chemicals. Otherwise, good olive oil should be clear, bright and, well, drinkable.

On two different visits to Shodoshima we made our way to Shimayado Mari, an inn that successfully infuses traditional living with modern comforts. Dinner there culminates with a pot of olive rice cooked in an Igayaki donabe earthenware pot, which yields the coveted crunchy rice at the bottom of the pot called okoge. The olive rice is served with a drizzle of Takao Nouen no Olive Hatake or Olive no Mori olive oil and a pinch of local salt. It’s heavenly.

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