In a new series, food writer and Cookbook Club host Angela Clutton explores the importance of quality and provenance when it comes to buying basics. This month: olive oil
Image: John Holdship
Olive oil—so popular, so familiar, so everywhere. But really, beyond relying on the magic words ‘extra virgin’, how much thought do we give to what it actually is that we are drizzling over much of our cooking? It is, indeed, the highest grade and will have been made without heat or chemicals to extract the oil from the fruit. It has the truest flavour of the olives, and more of their natural vitamins and minerals. Yet even given all that, not all extra virgin olive oils are equal. Far from it.
Which begs the obvious question: when the label ‘extra virgin’ only gets us so far, how else can we know if what we are buying makes olive oil deserving of its modern ubiquity?
The age of the oil is a good place to start. Olive oil does not age well. In a minute, I’m going to draw a whisky comparison, but no such comparison exists when it comes to how old an olive oil is. Over time its flavour and smell will, well, go off. Harvesting happens roughly from September to December (depending on weather and desired ripeness), so ideally oil will be from the most recent autumn / winter harvest.
Choosing oil from a single estate can also be a good indicator of quality. Whisky comparison coming up: there is nothing inherently wrong with a blend, if done well, but by choosing from a single estate you gain the full flavour of its particular terroir. There are estates throughout the olive grove regions of Italy, Spain and Greece whose oils are distinctive and best enjoyed when retaining their identity. There’s a reason founder Monika Linton writes in enticing detail in her cookbook about the places and people behind Brindisa’s estate oils. Both factors are critical in making up the oil’s finished character.
An estate willing to give their name to their oil will most likely care how the oil has been produced. That starts with caring about the trees. Harvesting olives by hand is certainly time and labour-intensive work, but worth investing in (ie paying for at the till) when the alternative is shaking the tree so hard the olives fall off, or having a harvester drive down the groves brutally ripping the fruits off. What a lack of respect that shows for all the years those trees have matured into bearing delicious fruit. And do we really imagine the trees bearing those bruises will be capable of producing good fruit after that?
The colour of an olive oil doesn’t tell us much in terms of its quality. Perfectly gorgeous oils of different countries and regions can be anything on the spectrum from light yellow, to dark green. Smell and taste are what matters, so trust your instincts. Only you know if what suits your cooking and palate is a full-bodied Italian oil from the south, a peppery one from Crete, or something sweet and grassy from northern Spain.
The most extraordinary journey
Even the idea that we’d have those kinds of choices or be featuring olive oil in a series about staple, basic ingredients in Britain would have seemed fanciful 50 or so years ago. Increased travel to the olive-growing regions of the Mediterranean and our knowledge of the benefits of that diet are what have since taken olive oil on the most extraordinary journey, from being nigh-on unheard of in our household kitchens, to a specialist ingredient, to an essential.
I think the best of all worlds is for it to be a ‘special essential’—and it can be when the olive oil you reach for every day has been made with respect for its provenance and the process.
Read Angela’s recipe for olive oil, herb and garlic marinated goat’s cheese with cucumber ribbons—a recipe that makes the most of quality olive oil