Olive oil-butter line: can fat determine culture?


There have been many anthropological and historical studies done in the Mediterranean that try to determine whether there are significant cultural and social differences in areas where butter versus olive oil is the predominant fat used in the cuisine. This is called the olive oil-butter line. It makes a ring around the Mediterranean and certainly says a great deal about climate. As an anthropologist, I am not sure I buy this fat argument entirely, but these areas certainly have very different forms of cuisine. However, I think this largely due to the weather. That said, it is amazing how much butter and oil can influence culinary practices and nutrition.

Here in Piedmont, butter reigns supreme. Polenta is garnished with butter and cheese such as fontina (polenta concia). Risotto would be nearly unthinkable without those last dollops of butter that sweat into the rice when it is nearly finished cooking. While, in contrast, Umbrian dishes are finished with a filo d’olio (a drizzle of olive oil). Certainly lentil soup just wouldn’t be complete without this finishing touch. In fact, good olive oil is nearly always used on roasted meats and vegetables just before they are served.

I am hoping soon to make down past the butter line and to indulge in some wonderful Mediterranean culture and cuisine garnished with an extra splash of extra virgin.