The Virgin Oil
Olive oil is the elixir of the century, but how do you choose between the myriad varieties on offer?
Name a vegetable oil that’s edible as soon as it is extracted one that doesn’t have to be treated for toxins and is suitable for consumption in its natural state.
Olive oil, that’s what!
Olive oil has been a staple of the Mediterranean diet for at least 4,000 years. In some parts, they even start the day with a glass of olive oil. Only recently have we caught on to its benefits not to mention its range. Now it’s an essential item in every kitchen cupboard!
MAKE OUT THE VIRGIN OILS
Because cold pressed or virgin olive oil is a pure product that retains its natural flavours, it’s possible to identify its origins the same way as wine.
Most olive oil comes fromItaly,France,SpainorGreece.Italyproduces some of the best in the world —they are medium to heavy and tend to be greener, with great complexities in flavour.
French olive oils are usually lighter in taste and colour, whileSpaintends to produce yellow, heavy oils.Greeceproduces oils with a pronounced green colour and medium weight, not overly complex in taste, but good value for money.
PREPARING THE OIL
Most of the world’s olive oil is produced around the Mediterranean shores, where the ideal conditions of mild winters, wet springs and hot, dry summers abound. Green and black olives are the fruit of the same tree (the fruits, first green, ripen to black or dark brown), only picked at different times. Harvesting takes place between September and November, when the olives are knocked off (with the help of poles) into nets placed beneath the trees.
Then the olives are stored at the mill for a short time (anything from a few hours to a few days) to allow them to warm naturally, without letting them ferment. After any twigs and leaves are removed, the olives are washed in water, destoned and crushed to a paste. Traditionally, this olive paste is spread on mats, which are stacked in a hydraulic press. Called cold pressing, it releases the juice, which contains the fruit’s natural water and oil. This is allowed to flow into a trough of water, where the oil, which rises to the surface, is skimmed off.
Today, however, the oil is extracted from the paste by centrifugal machines. These spin at high speeds, separating the two. (It takes about five kg. of olives to make a litre of oil.)
TYPES OF VIRGIN OIL
The best virgin olive oils are made from green, unripe olives, which have been processed only once, without heating or being chemically treated. They are graded by their acidity, according to standards set by the International Olive Oil Council: Extra virgin olive oil — good for dressings and gentle cooking — has less than one per cent acidity; fine virgin olive oil has less than 1.5 per cent.
Standard olive oil is produced by the same methods mentioned, but needs to be refined by neutralisation, bleaching and deodorisation, due to the oil’s excessive acidity, colour or flavour. This is best for cooking procedures involving high temperatures, such as frying and sautéing.
POUR IT ON
And how. Drizzle the oil over a salad, toss your pasta in it or enhance meat with a few dashes of it. Madalena Bonino, head chef at Bertorellis, one ofLondon’s oldest Italian restaurants, has several recommendations. She uses Masseria extra virgin olive oil from Puglia, Italy (a green oil with a rich flavour of unripe olives, ideal for simple salad dressings) mixed with a little balsamic vinegar, drizzled over fish. Another of her favourites is a light olive oil byL’Aquila, which has a powerful truffly flavour, especially when it’s lightly trickled over warm food, such as bruschetta or grilled steak, when the heat allows the flavour to develop.
And then you can try out variations of your own. Just go olive!
STORING OLIVE OIL
- Always check the expiry date on the bottle, especially for extra virgin oil. Store for up to a year.
- Store well away from strong smells as they can infiltrate the oil.
- Keep the oil in a dark, cool, dry place (12° to 15°C is the ideal temperature).
- Don’t decant into different bottles too often — exposure to air lets the oil absorb odours.
WAYS TO TEST THE OIL
OLIVE oil testings are becoming popular in delicatessens. The easiest way to sample oil is on a piece of bread. But for the connoisseur:
- Pour some of the oil onto a light-coloured plate.
- Smell the oil.
- Suck a tsp. of it into your mouth through your teeth (to mix air with the oil).
There will be an obvious, overwhelming flavour at first, followed by a confusion of subtler tones, followed by a peppery flavour that develops in the back of your throat as you swallow.
The International Olive Oil Council has developed these terms for their tasters, which may help you to identify flavours:
Earthy: Characteristic of oil obtained from olives that have absorbed the taste of the soil in which the tree grew. This flavour may be accompanied by a musty odour.
Fruity: This describes both odour and taste, and indicates that the olives were picked at the optimum stage of ripeness.
Grass: A flavour reminiscent of newly mown grass and common in oils made from olives grown very close to meadows.
Rough: Heavy enough to cause a thick, cloying sensation in the mouth.
Bitter/green leaves: This is a characteristic taste of oil obtained from excessively green olives, or olives that have been crushed with leaves and twigs.
By testing different oils, you’ll discover your own favourites.
HEALTHY THROUGH OLIVE OIL
- Olive oil has a high nutritional value and is rich in vitamins A, E, D and K, which promote bone growth and healthy development of the brain and nervous system.
- The anti-oxidants from the oil, when absorbed into the body, keep cells alive longer, retarding ageing.
- Olive oil also acts as a mild laxative and relieves pain and inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis.
- Free from salt and preservatives, low in saturated and polyunsaturated fats and high in monosaturated fats, the consumption of olive oil reduces the harmful kind of cholesterol while increasing the beneficial kind.
- The oil is also known for its therapeutic properties for heart patients and acts as an anti-coagulant.
(Layers of fresh tomato & mozzarella topped with olives, capers & Italian dressing)
Time required: 20 minutes
- 400g mozzarella cheese
- 10 cherry tomatoes
- 8 stuffed olives
- 4 black olives, de-stoned
- 1 tbsp. (15g) capers
- 200g lettuce or cabbage, washed
- & pat dried
- 6-9 sprigs fresh basil leaves, shredded
For the dressing:
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 1 tsp. (5g) mustard powder
- ½ tsp. (2g) sugar
- 1 tsp. (5g) pepper powder
- ½ tsp. (2g) oregano, dried
- 50ml olive oil
- Salt to taste
To prepare the dressing:
- Whisk all the dressing ingredients thoroughly and refrigerate.
- Slice the cheese and tomatoes to equal thickness and arrange on a bed of finely shredded lettuce or cabbage. Drizzle the dressing lavishly on top. Garnish with olives and capers. Decorate with the sprigs of fresh basil leaves and serve chilled.