Beauty and the Feast
Back in the day, before refrigeration, pickling was the most efficient and common method of preserving ripe vegetables. But in Italian, French, and Spanish kitchens, cooks have also long conserved their fresh produce in oil, which yields a velvety, full-flavored product that differs entirely from the briny snap of a pickled product. Without sharp acidity, oil-preserved vegetables are highly compatible partners to all kinds of cheeses, from soft chèvre to shards of aged Pecorino.
In the Italian farmstead tradition, this ancient practice of storing vegetables sott’olio (under the oil), virtually turns the process into an art form. Harvest surplus is used to fill jars with a mosaic-like mixture of preserves, such as red eggplant, artichokes, tomatoes, and dried or fried peppers. To capture their flavor, the ripest vegetables are often transferred from plant to jar in less than an hour. Artichokes are peeled by hand; pepper stems are sewn together so they can dry in the arid summer heat; thinly-sliced eggplant and zucchini are gently rolled before being tucked into jars. Besides the vegetables and extra-virgin olive oil, the only other ingredients typically added are a splash of vinegar, a pinch of salt, and perhaps, depending on the mixture, some capers or parsley.
Adding conserved vegetables to a cheese board is one of the easiest ways to entertain, especially when it’s part of an alfresco meal in which the idea is to serve foods that are best at an ambient temperature. There are no hard-and-fast rules for veg pairings with cheese, but in general try to match intensities or provide a contrasting mouthfeel. Pair a sharp, aromatic, aged Pecorino or Fontina Val d’Aosta with satiny eggplant; or spicy julienned peppers with an earthy blue, smoky Scamorza, or a pasta filata cheese. Semi-firm, nutty Manchego or a bloomy-rinded goat cheese does right by sweet little artichokes.
To keep things tidy and easy to serve, arrange the vegetables separately on a platter. To spice up the combination of preserves and cheese with a meaty accompaniment, add some of your favorite salumi. And don’t forget the crusty bread!
To learn how to make your own oil-preserved vegetables, go to on of these recipes:
Written by Laurel Miller
Photography by Andrea Duarte