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Taste & Learn: Olive Oil

Feature: Long Read
Words by: Bridie Newman and Bill Knott

There’s a reason why olive oil is the most used pantry essential. You only have to google ‘olive oil benefits’ or ‘is olive oil good for you?’ and you’ll find it’s great for your skin (J.Lo has used it for decades), it’s rich in monosaturated healthy fats and has been lauded for its antioxidant goodness – any excuse to lavishly pour the liquid gold on everything, right? But what makes an olive oil stand out from the crowd? Food writer Bill Knott finds out.  

Selection of olive oils on a table

Where does olive oil come from?

The liquid that comes from pressed ripened olives, olive oil can come from anywhere that has olive groves, notably the Mediterranean. Alessandro Savelli, founder of Pasta Evangelists chooses his oil from Italy according to the dish and points out that the flavour of oil reflects the terrain. “Olive oil in the north of Italy tends to be lighter and more delicate on the palate. In Tuscany, the oil is neither too light nor too heavy, so it is a perfect all-rounder; as you move towards the centre of the country, the terrain becomes more challenging, and so does the oil: it has more pronounced and pungent flavours.”

On how olive oil is made

“The earlier olives are picked, the more grassy and peppery their oil will be, especially when the oil is young.”

Olive oil sitting on a table with light shining through it

Where does olive oil come from?

The liquid that comes from pressed ripened olives, olive oil can come from anywhere that has olive groves, notably the Mediterranean. Alessandro Savelli, founder of Pasta Evangelists chooses his oil from Italy according to the dish and points out that the flavour of oil reflects the terrain. “Olive oil in the north of Italy tends to be lighter and more delicate on the palate. In Tuscany, the oil is neither too light nor too heavy, so it is a perfect all-rounder; as you move towards the centre of the country, the terrain becomes more challenging, and so does the oil: it has more pronounced and pungent flavours.”

Further south still, in Sicily and Puglia, the oils have a character of their own: Savelli says that the flavour of Sicilian oil “is enhanced by its hilly, intensively cultivated terrain: expect to taste hints of artichokes and other local produce. And for a heavier, meat-based dish, I’d choose an oil from Puglia. “In general, though – and I might be biased – I tend to opt for oil that is lighter in taste, with subtle earthy hints that remind me of Liguria, where I’m from.”

Outside of Italy, “there are great oils from Spain and Portugal,” says Angela Hartnett, chef/proprietor of the Michelin-starred Murano in Mayfair, “and I love Provençal oil from the South of France.” Savelli, meanwhile, says: “It’s no secret that Greece produces some cracking single-estate oils. And across the Adriatic from Italy, Croatia is definitely one to watch – it doesn’t produce anywhere near as much as Spain or Italy, but its oils are quietly picking up award after award.” There are high-quality olive oils produced in the southern hemisphere, too, like the fruity, complex Morgenster olive oil from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Even between producers in the same region, the characteristics of oils can vary, with a number of factors involved. These include the olive varietals (like grapes, different cultivars of olive have distinct characteristics), the altitude at which they are grown, and when they are picked: generally, the earlier olives are picked, the more grassy and peppery their oil will be, especially when the oil is young.

Detail of ingredients in an olive oil bottle
Detail of ingredients in an olive oil bottle
Which olive oil is best?
Which olive oil is best?

The regulations governing olive oil are notoriously ill-defined. Many descriptors found frequently on labels are more or less meaningless, so the only real way to judge the quality of an oil is either to taste it yourself, or to rely on the palates of the judges at olive-oil competitions. And, contrary to popular belief, you should not be influenced by the colour of an oil – professionals taste oil from clear blue glasses so the colour will not affect their judgement.

On preserving olive oil


"As with wine, sunlight and oxygen are the twin enemies of olive oil, shortening its shelf life and dulling its fresh, bright flavours."

The only meaningful descriptor is ‘extra-virgin olive oil’, which means that the amount of free acidity in the oil is less than 0.8 per cent. (When heat or solvents are later used to extract oil of inferior quality, the level of acidity is much higher.)

Wherever your oil comes from, both Hartnett and Savelli agree the most important thing is to store it well. “I don’t like it when I go to a restaurant and see good-quality olive oil left in a clear glass bottle on the table,” says Savelli. “It might look pretty, but being around heat and light is the worst thing for olive oil.” He advises using a stainless-steel decanter. And Hartnett advises buying oil in small quantities rather than massive bottles, adding, “keep it in a cool, dark place, and remember that olive oil is essentially a fruit juice: treat it that way, and you won’t go far wrong.”

Ways to Use Olive Oil

Infuse olive oil with a mixture of herbs or vegetables for a tantalising twist.

Detail of garlic and thyme being roasted in a pan

You can perk up a mayonnaise or a vinaigrette with oil infused with herbs, garlic or peppers. The secret is to use a light-coloured, lightly flavoured oil – buttery rather than grassy – and to infuse it in one of two ways.

 

For fresh, leafy herbs like parsley or basil

Add garlic and lemon zest, blitz them in a food processor, infuse them in cold oil for a few hours, then strain and bottle. Store in the fridge and use within a week or so.

 

For woody herbs like rosemary or thyme, and dried mushrooms or chillies

Heat the oil before infusion. Hartnett says she is not a huge fan of flavoured oils, “but I do like a good chilli oil on my pizza! Gently heat some light olive oil, take it off the heat, then add some dried peperoncini [hot red-chilli peppers] and leave them to infuse before bottling”.

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