Here's a constant problem for a wannabe gourmet on a grad student's budget...getting good quality ingredients for affordable prices. It takes a fair amount of research, both online and the boots-on-the-ground kind. It also takes an ability to prioritize...for which products does getting the premium version actually make a difference?
One of those products where money frequently does equal quality is extra virgin olive oil. (Although not always, as certain fraudsters have recently proved. Also check out the full New Yorker article on fraud in the olive oil industry.) I've had some really bad experiences trying to cheap out on olive oil (the kind you drizzle, not the kind you cook with. The latter is a place you can go cheap.) So I've been looking for an extra virgin that was good quality, but not too rich for my blood. Say, nothing over $15-$16 a bottle.
Cook's Illustrated gave top marks in 2008 to Columela, and several other taste tests in magazines rated Columela at least near the top, so I decided to give it a try. $18 bucks for a half-liter bottle was still a little too expensive for me, though, no matter how good.
Fortunately, Boston is a foodie haven, which means that there are lots of stores that carry a range of premium brands at a high rate of turnover. This means that if you shop around, you can luck out. I ran into the bolder version of CI's winner, Columela Artesano Extra Virgin Olive Oil, at the Whole Foods near Washington Square in Brookline, for a mere $13.99 (on sale from its regular price of $14.99). Most online retailers seem to price it at around $15. (That is, of course, without shipping costs.)
It's buttery and very slightly sweet, but still sharp, peppery, with just the right amount of "green" flavor to it. It tastes like it's an actual agricultural product; really worth a savor.
And, you can savor the price, too.
UPDATE: Recently found Artesano at $9.99 for a 500 mL bottle at Marty's Liquors in Allston, across from the Harvard Ave. T stop. If you've never been to Marty's, it's not your typical college town liquor store. They have a great deli, specialty gourmet foods, an aisle full of microbrews, and a wine selection (complete with an ask-an-expert desk) that will take you from the $7 vin de table to the $200/case vintage Bordeaux. Where else in Allston can you pick up a six pack and a block of Gruyère in a single stop?
Update May 2010: Sadly, Marty's Liquors in Allston closed last year. I've been to their Newton, MA location, and the prices are as much as half again what I used to pay in Allston. I now buy this olive oil wherever I can find it. Salumeria Italiana in the North End carries it in stock regularly. (For some other options for inexpensive-yet-good olive oils, check out my recent extra virgin olive oil tasting featuring Columela Artesano.)