Introducing Olive Oil – by Malcolm Gilmour of The Malaxer

I am sure that there are particular wines that you consider favourites. Have you ever considered thinking about olive oil in the same way? Perhaps you just want to know what kind of oil you’re buying and whether it’s genuine. In my case, I caught the olive oil bug several years ago on a trip to Liguria, Italy. Like me, more and more people are becoming interested in great olive oil. I’d like to try and explain why.

So, first of all, what is extra virgin olive oil?

One way of thinking about extra virgin olive oil is simply as a fruit juice. Olives are, like peaches, cherries and plums, a stone fruit. Extra virgin olive oil really is simply the juice of olives extracted without any defects being introduced. The quality of the final result is determined as much by what the farmer does during the year in the olive grove, the local climate, irrigation practices and so on as by the skill with which the olives are processed in the mill. The best olive oil, like wine, is a vivid expression of where it comes from. Here is a picture of the groves of one of Tuscany’s top producers, Fattoria Ramerino, with Florence just visible in the background.

© Malcolm Gilmour

Are there different styles of extra virgin olive oil?

Absolutely – like the grapes that are used to make wine, the type of olive that oil is made from has a huge effect on its taste. There are hundreds of varietals in the world ranging from Coratina (Puglia, Italy) and Arbequina (Catalonia, Spain) to Koroneiki (Greece). Artichoke, tomato, rocket, even banana are just some of the flavours and aromas different olives can give. Oils can either be made from a single variety or blends of different varieties. Another huge influence on style is the time of harvest. Olives that are harvested early in the season when they are still green tend to give much more peppery, bitter oils. If the harvest is later, when the olives have turned purple-black, you tend to get a much sweeter, milder oil. Recently, an interest in the benefits of olive oil on diet has led to a rise in the number of bitter, often peppery olive oils available. These typically contain high levels of polyphenols (compounds linked with positive effects on health) but are not to everyone’s taste. Different styles really come into play when pairing oils with foods; robust, bitter oils might go much better with meat or strong cheese while lighter, more aromatic oils could work better with fish.

Is it true that first cold-pressed oils are the best? What about single estate oils?

If you see someone bragging about their ‘first cold-pressed oil’, chances are they are unaware of how olive oil is made nowadays. Almost all commercially produced oil is now extracted using a process that makes the term redundant. Don’t be fooled by what seems to have become marketing shorthand for oil that is supposedly superior.

Single estate farms are simply farms that grow, harvest, mill and bottle their own olives. Other producers can include farmers or individuals who use the local co-operative mill or even co-operatives themselves who buy olives from farmers before bottling and commercialising the oil or, at the industrial end of the scale, large packers and bottlers (think Filippo Berio). The latter buy huge quantities of oil each year before blending and bottling the final product. Although not a guarantee of better oil, single estates have the advantage of controlling the whole process themselves and often result in more interesting, albeit more expensive oils.

So what’s plain ‘olive oil’ then?

Commonly found on the supermarket shelves: the simple bottle of ‘olive oil’, sometimes labelled as ‘pure’ or ‘mild’ is noticeably cheaper than extra virgin oils. This is simply oil that has been refined, generally from a very low grade of virgin oil, by removing all the unpleasant odours and flavours. A bit of virgin or extra virgin oil is then added back to give a little bit of fruit, and bottled. It’s not true that this type of oil is better for cooking; extra virgin olive oil is perfectly safe (and better) to cook with for pretty much all types of cooking.

What should you look for when you are buying extra virgin oil?

Extra virgin olive oil is best within the year of its harvest which tends to be from October to December in the traditional European producing countries. Therefore, where possible, look for bottles that have a harvest date within the last year. Light, oxygen and heat are all enemies of olive oil so also look for oils that come in dark glass (or tin) and haven’t been stored next to sources of heat. Don’t be fooled by the cheapest brand of extra virgin oil in shops; it’s not at all uncommon to find bottles of oil passing themselves off as extra-virgin oils when they really aren’t (trust me on this, I’ve tried a lot of them!)

What’s the best way to learn more about olive oil?

Tasting. There’s a few reasons why tasting olive oil, ideally getting used to its aroma and drinking a few sips, is a good thing. Firstly, it’s the best indicator of the flavour of the oil. If it’s old, defective or just plain boring, this is how you’ll pick it up. Secondly, tasting is the most reliable way to discern the essential characteristics – fruit, bitterness, pepper – and with what it might best be paired. Thirdly, by tasting different oils and learning a bit about the stories and families behind them, you get a sense of the differences between varieties, harvest times and freshness, and ultimately which oil has become your new treasured possession.

Keen to know more? Look out for details of olive oil tasting events arranged with Malcolm for Encorum members – or email Simon directly via contact@encorum.co.uk for additional information.

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