Ode to the olive branch
Olive trees, native to the Mediterranean, are thought to be the oldest cultivated tree. They are drought resistant, suited to harsh climates and can produce fruit for many years. Often grown as a companion plant to grapevines, which thrive in similar conditions, olive trees were a revered commodity in the ancient world, said to signify longevity and health. Likewise, grapes were, and still are, celebrated as symbols of new life. So, what better, or more ancient, combination than olives, oil and wine?
Making oil from olives is a relatively simple process that has remained largely unchanged over the ages. The olives are gently picked to avoid bruising, the fruit is crushed or pressed and, from this mix, the oil is extracted. The time between picking and processing the fruit is important; ideally it should be within 24 hours as the olives continue to ripen and will ferment.
When oils ain’t extra virgin
Any oil that is a product of this first pressing is classified as a virgin oil, the finest of which can then move up the ladder to become an ‘extra virgin’. This is judged by flavour and, more scientifically, a certain percentage of oleic acid, a naturally occurring acid found in olive oils.
Not all of the oil extracted from olives is destined for dizzying extra virgin heights. Commercial issues, such as yield and the need to enhance imperfect fruit, come into play. Hence, heat, chemicals and solvents are utilised to modify the oil. Flavours are often refined, too, or oils may be blended to improve the finished product.
Treat the virgins with respect
It’s easy to forget that extra virgin olive oils are a fresh seasonal product. They will not last forever and as you wouldn’t eat a wilted piece of lettuce, nor should you use oil that is old and expired. Storage is important in keeping your oil nice. Too much direct sunlight or heat can quickly turn a delicious extra virgin into something rancid and unpleasant. As with all fresh produce, I prefer to use local varieties as they are always going to be more vibrant, and the long distances travelled by imported oils, due to their fragile nature, can be a little upsetting for extra virgins.
The flavour of an extra virgin oil can be anything, from a bitter, dark green peppery essence that catches in the back of your throat to a delicate mellow buttery taste with hints of green tomato vine, banana or, in the case of Hojiblanca, nuts. The type of olive used is, of course, a big factor in how the oil tastes, but so too is the provenance and season in which it was picked. Olives picked earlier in the season tend to produce strong pungent oils, whereas fruit picked at a later, riper stage carry gentler flavours. Olives are easily influenced by the soil, region and weather in which they are grown, too. Like wine and its vintages, no two types of extra virgin olive oil will ever be the same.
Reasons to get oily
Extra virgin olive oil is too often relegated to the land of ‘use sparingly’ - reserved for dressings or perhaps a slight drizzle over a special dish. This is unfair, as it’s a complex and amazing substance that should be used as an ingredient in its own right.
The commonly held belief that extra virgin olive oils shouldn’t be heated is an unfortunate myth. While it’s true the more subtle and delicate flavours can dissipate a little with heat, it’s perfectly acceptable (and safe) to use extra virgins for cooking or frying. In fact, in many Mediterranean cultures, frying with olive oil is common practice. However, extra virgin olive oils can be expensive, so it’s not necessarily cost-effective to use them for everything.
Once you have a grasp on the flavour types of extra virgin olive oils, then you can start to play. If you have a particularly robust oil, such as Picual or Koroneki, use it with dishes that have a strong flavour, like stir-fried pipis with black bean and chilli. A strong peppery oil is perfect stirred through a long, slow braise of meat or utilise it when making a hearty winter minestra soup, both in the cooking and on top at the end to give extra depth and flavour.
If, however, you are steaming a delicate piece of fish, dress it with a mellow oil, such as Coratina or Manzanillo. When dressing green salads, adjust the type of oil you use according to your leaves. If you favour bitter greens, such as radicchio or a strong rocket, do you want to use a peppery oil to meet that flavour or a more mild oil to complement it? Another area to explore is using extra virgins in sweet dishes as you would with butter. Biscuits and cakes, like this nutty olive oil variety, can give beautiful texture and flavour. There are many foods in the world that benefit from the addition of a good extra virgin olive oil, so don't stop at a drizzle.
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Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Rachel Lane. Creative concept by Lou Fay.
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