Extra Virgin Olive Oil

It’s ‘oil’ in the taste

This year we have put a particular focus on olive oils and have started to sell a stunning new range from the Extremadura region in western Spain.  But what’s so special about olive oil and what should we be looking out for?

Olive trees were being cultivated around the Mediterranean before 3000BC. In Britain we didn’t use it as a cooking ingredient until Elizabeth David started writing columns about Mediterranean cookery in Harper’s Bazaar after the Second World War. Up until the late 1960s olive oil was only available in small bottles in the chemist! Over 32 countries now produce olive oil with Spain producing 60% followed by Italy and then Greece. Over 80 varieties of olives are grown and some olive producers will mix the varieties or produce single varietal oils.

Undoubtedly the queen of olive oils is extra virgin, made from the first cold pressing of the olives and unsurpassed in taste and versatility. The remaining pulp – or pomace – will be pressed again and that oil is used for cooking. For high yields heat or water may be added during the processing to get as much oil as possible but this produces inferior oil and I would always advise people to spend their money on a good extra virgin olive oil.

To get the full flavour experience, go for a recognised ‘house’ or single varietal. Rather like wines, olive oils can vary hugely and, also like wines, should be matched to food flavours.  The climate and soil of the area along with the variety of olive will affect the taste of the resulting oil. Olives ripen from pale green all the way through violet and black and the grower decides when they are ripe to pick. Those ready for pressing are usually somewhere in the middle of the ripening process and the majority that are picked will be green rather than black. Two things to look out for are the aroma and the taste – strong oils will have a ‘green’ smell and a peppery taste.  Olive oil contains acid and each season the oil will have a different level of acidity. Once picked, the olives need to be processed quickly as they can start to ferment and build up acidity and generally, the lower the acidity, the better the oil.

The oil is best kept in dark, cool conditions but not in the refrigerator as it will start to solidify. Look for oils that are in dark bottles or tins rather than clear bottles. It can go rancid if not kept well, so use it or lose it! Some oils on the market are unfiltered. Filtration methods nowadays have helped to create clearer oils but unfiltered oil tends to have a stronger flavour. We sell one type of unfiltered oil, the multi award winning Oleosetín, which is wonderful in dressings or just drizzled over hot new potatoes with a pinch of sea salt, a grind of black pepper and some grated lemon zest.

Olive oils

For general use in the School we use a house Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil which we specially import directly from I&P, a boutique company producing amazing oils from their olive grove just north of Rome.  The Spanish Texturas range of four different oils from the Extremadura region is in beautiful litre tins and makes great presents. For frying and roasting, I use the Manzanilla Sevillana because those particular olives make oil that is perfectly suited to this. If you are looking for organic oil the Texturas Eco combines great taste with strikingly modern packaging.

On top of all the flavour and versatility, olive oil can be good for you too as it is high in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants.  A number of medical studies, combined with evidence of population health in Mediterranean countries, suggest that regular consumption can help in lowering cholesterol, and reducing risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes.  Little wonder then that Homer described this wonderful product as ‘liquid gold’.

The Texturas range, Oleosetín and Vieiru Extra Virgin Olive Oil are available to buy from the School.  Prices start from £8 for 250mls Oleosetín up to £15 a litre for the Texturas range.