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Tree to Table: Patrice Newell

Tree to Table - Cooking With Australian Olive Oil

Patrice Newell (photo Domino Postiglione)

Like an extra virgin

February 26, 2008 - 2:23PM

For Patrice Newell, quality olive oil is more than an ingredient - it's a passion, reports Kelsey Munro.

PATRICE NEWELL, author, ex-journalist and twice-unsuccessful candidate for the Climate Change Coalition, vowed she would never write a food book. Twenty-odd years working on her biodynamic farm in the upper Hunter Valley, half of it producing premium olive oils, has changed her mind.

"I'd been speaking about these things - climate change, water reform, organic farming - and just about every time I'd speak anywhere someone would say, 'Patrice, just on another thing, I want to buy olive oil ...' and it just kept happening."

Newell learned few people were confident about using olive oil and too few appreciated the taste and nutritional value of the good stuff.

"It hasn't become part of really ordinary every day kitchen culture," she says.

So she wrote and compiled Tree To Table - Cooking With Australian Olive Oil, a book of olive oil recipes from famous Australian chefs and Newell's own writings on the topic. Her passion for olive oil is evident on every page. It's extra virgin or nothing, for starters, and preferably biodynamic. Blended is OK as long as it is premium quality. You should use only fresh (recently harvested) olive oil and use it liberally.

"I'm evangelical about the purity of ingredients, not just olive oil," she says, "and it occurred to me when I started writing the book: oil is a fat in the food pyramid and here I am writing a book about fat in a Western culture where apparently 49 per cent of Australians are overweight. We've entered this low-fat mindset. Yet good-quality fat, like this highly nutritious fresh olive oil, is a good thing. If I can help one person to not be scared of fat, I've done my duty."

Along with recipes (marinades, infused oils, salads) and discussion of the Australian olive oil industry, Newell's book lists alternative uses for olive oil as lubricant, moisturiser, fuel, lighting and medicine. She also explains how to pick rancid oil by smell - olive oil goes off when left on the shelf too long. (On the bright side, rancid olive oil is still good, evidently, for rubbing down leather goods.)

Newell, who is also a registered olive oil judge, reserves particular scorn for industrially processed seed oils such as canola and olive oils labelled "pure" or "lite" that are common in supermarkets. "This is factory oil, refined, deodorised and reblended to bureaucratic standards," she writes in Tree To Table.

The best olive oil is made through the ancient, simple process of pressing the fruit.

"You've got processed oils where they are industrially refined to convert the seed into an oil; and you've got olive oil which is olive fruit crushed and oil extracted out of it," she says.

It's the harvest date, not the use-by date, that is the secret to buying good olive oil.

"Whether in a supermarket or a deli, the key thing is when was that oil processed?" she says. "The fresher the oil, the better. You can have good oil even two years down the track - you're pushing it, but one year is OK. If it was a 2005 harvest, it's 2008 now so you may not want to buy it if you want it for your top salads."

There are now about 9 million olive trees planted around Australia and the nascent industry is gaining a good reputation overseas. Olive oil from warmer parts of the country can be used almost immediately after it is pressed but oils from cooler regions take longer to settle.

Using the freshest, best quality olive oil is part of Newell's overall philosophy.

"To me, cooking is part of looking after yourself," she says. "Food is our medicine. Why eat cardboard, like white sliced bread? You have to be kidding me! Every mouthful should have value. It's like reading junk, watching junk, listening to junk - you want to put value into the things you do."

Incidentally, Newell hasn't completely ruled out running for office again. "It's a bit too early to ask me that. I haven't quite recovered, still a tad tired from the election. It was a huge ask.

"In the federal election it would have been the biggest miracle, I would have made political history if I'd got up."

Tree to Table - Cooking With Australian Olive Oil is available next week.