FOOD & DRINK / When virginity is put to the acid test: In our supermarkets, extra virgin olive oil just means low acid, says Michael Bateman. Other virtues matter more

THE FRENCH do not set much store by virginity, claims the oil merchant Charles Carey. Not as far as their olive oils are concerned, anyway. But virginity is still a virtue that Italians care about passionately.

We Britons may think we side with the Italians on this issue. We assume the competitively-priced 'extra virgin' oils in supermarkets are the real thing. Alas, it is we who are the virgins in this scenario, according to Mr Carey.

When the Italians define extra virgin olive oil they mean cold-pressed oil, carefully made from selected olive berries, confirmed by scrupulous chemical analysis. A further measure of 'extra virginity' is the acidity level, which must be less than one per cent. In the past this was a rough-and-ready guide, as a high level of acidity indicated a poor oil; perhaps the olives were harvested too late, or the olive fly had got to them, or the berries had been shaken to the ground and left there bruised, allowing fermentation to set in.

The acidity level is the only criterion applied to most extra virgin olive oils sold in British supermarkets. 'As a definition it is almost meaningless today,' Mr Carey says. 'In a modern oil factory chemically-refined oils can be de-acidified by the use of alkali solutions. It is clearly not extra virgin olive in spirit.'

The EU has ordered oil producers to put their houses in order, but until that happens Britons will remain the innocents at the feast. We are only just coming to terms with this madonna of vegetable oils, prompted by a concern for healthy eating and the appeal of the Mediterreanean diet. It is barely seven years since we started to distinguish between pure olive oil (for frying) and extra virgin olive oil (for enhancing salads and grilled vegetables).

So how do you find your way around this minefield? Writer Anne Dolamore, who is compiling A Buyer's Guide to Olive Oil (published in the autumn by Grub Street), admits that it is not easy, with the number of imported extra virgin olive oils increasing at a dramatic rate. When she published her Essential Olive Oil Companion (Grub Street, pounds 10.95) in 1988, the total variety of olive oils imported from Italy, France, Greece and Spain barely numbered 50. Now there are so many she is having difficulty selecting the top 100 varieties.

And these are but a drop in the olive oil lake - as visitors to Italy's first olive oil fair, Oleum, held in Florence in March, discovered. Priscilla Carluccio, who owns Carluccio's, the Italian provisioners in Covent Garden, central London, was startled to discover perhaps 1,000 oils under one roof; even these were clearly only a small fraction of the total, since most came from Tuscany. The other big production areas, Liguria in the north, Puglia in the south, and the improving areas of Sicily and Sardinia, were only sparsely represented - let alone the premium oils of France, Spain and Greece.

'It really opened my eyes,' Ms Carluccio says. 'It was as if I was learning a new language. It also convinced me that in Britain we are the victims of ignorance and snobbishness. The Italians taste oils with the expertise of wine tasters.'

And so they might, given that so-called estate-bottled oils cost from pounds 15 to pounds 20 a litre. Buying them sounds like a rich man's indulgence, like collecting chateau-bottled clarets - desirable but impracticable. But a high-

priced estate-bottled olive oil is not like a grand cru classe, a precious old wine that matures over 20 years. Old does not equal good in the world of oil: the keen flavour of the fruitiest new oil fades quickly.

It is the very youngest, made from olives picked and pressed in October and November, and to a lesser extent December and January, which are prized by connoisseurs. Green and grassy with a strong peppery aftertaste, they are probably not yet to British tastes, admits Ms Carluccio: some of those which were tasted at the BBC Good Food Show this year had people screwing up their faces with distaste.

This pepperiness is basically the taste of the bitter, unripe green olive skins, for the best oil is not made from ripe, oily black olives, as you might expect. It is this pepperiness which is the hallmark of the style of Tuscany, home of the major estate-bottled brands. But it is not enough to replicate bitterness if you can't achieve the sweet, smooth oiliness which precedes it, and a mouthful of fruity flavour.

As a consumer, where do you start? Ideally, you would equip yourself with a minimum of three olive oils, suggests Anna del Conte, the Italian cookery book writer. Five would not be excessive. You would have a cheap, bland 'pure olive oil' for frying. Then you would have a fairly tasty, not too expensive, extra virgin olive oil for dribbling over meat or fish or vegetables before roasting or grilling. And, finally, you would have an expensive estate-

bottled, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil for drizzling, cold, over finished dishes or incorporating in fine vinaigrettes and dressings.

The Italian uses of oil are myriad - dribbled into country soups such as pasta e fagioli or on to bruschetta (toasted country bread with savoury toppings) or mixed in a pesto (pounded basil or other green herbs blended with hard grating cheese, pecorino or parmesan, mixed with pine nuts, hazelnuts or walnuts).

Olive oils are uncompromisingly difficult to taste. Mario Scala, who imports San Giuliano, one of Italy's finest brands of extra virgin (winner of the Italian consumer magazine Qualita's tastings in 1992), says you can only taste six or seven oils at a sitting. The problem is that the tongue quickly becomes carpeted by a thick slick of oil. Mr Scala advises us to taste oils often to learn the grammar of tasting, eating slices of apple between each sample. Pour a little into a saucer. Roll it around to see the colour, from rich yellow through to bright green. Smell it, and look for the aroma of new-mown hay, fruit, flowers, olive leaves.

'Put a teaspoonful on your tongue and chew it several times, suck it through your teeth, let air circulate. Spread the flavours around the mouth, and then swallow. Count 15, 20, even 30 seconds, and gradually you will find the peppery finish arriving in the back of your throat, and with it some other flavours.'

Mr Scala speaks for Italian oils. I asked him to taste an extra virgin olive oil from Cordoba, in southern Spain. It is rich with an almost tropical ripe smell. He was mystified. Nor did he find to his taste a sweet 'olivey' oil from Provence which Charles Carey imports. These oils, like those from Italy's regions, have a different and pronounced style; and within each style there are infinite variations.

So, what are the primary characteristics, allowing for differences within each style?

British supermarket own brands: Usually bland blends of oil whose acidity has been brought down to below one per cent by factory processing. They may have a proportion of cold-pressed olive oil added to improve flavour. Good price. OK for shallow frying and basting, or for a strong, mustardy dressing.

French (Provencal): A little farmhouse oil is still made in France; delicious and fruity, but most of their oils are imported (largely from Spain) and blended to produce a sweet 'olivey' taste and aroma. Very good for dressing green salad; essential in a salade Nicoise. The Oil Merchant can give local stockists and has a mail order service: 081-740 1335.

Spanish unfiltered: Packed with rich scent and flavour, melons and passionfruit, but still a peppery finish. Try Nunez de Prado or Oro Magina. Ring the importer Cinco Dias (071- 403 1137) for stockists.

Greek: Often a slightly thicker oil, but not short of delicacy and flavour. Excellent value for money. Harvey Nichols, Waitrose and Greek-run delicatessens.

Tuscan estate-bottled: From Badia a Coltibuono, one of the first aristocrats of olive oil, to the new Laudemio range, offered in outsize 'scent bottles', these are the self-appointed market leaders and priced accordingly. All good delicatessens and food stores.

Ligurian: Lighter, delicately flavoured oils from the northernmost groves in Europe. Ring importer Danmar (081-844 1494) for stockists.

Puglian: Produces less pricey oils from the south that are gutsy and full of fruit. Until Italy adopts DOC (certified origin of produce), Tuscan oils will continue to incorporate some Puglian oil in their blends. Available from specialist food stores.

Sicily: Grassy, new-mown hay, strong, wild flavours. The, most famous, Azienda Ravida, won one of Italy's most prestigious oil competitions. Harvey Nichols and the Oil Merchant (081-740 1335).

Sardinia: Lies further south than Tuscany, but the cooler climate gives more refined flavours. At Spoleta in April, four of the six category winners for the best Italian olive oil came from Sardinia. Ring the importer EuroChoice

(081-653 9422) for stockists.-

Connoisseurs' choices

ANNA DEL CONTE, WRITER

For frying: Waitrose 'mild and light' pure olive oil, pounds 1.79 per half-litre.

For pesto or salsa verde: light and delicate Roi extra virgin from Liguria, pounds 12.50 for 750ml (Danmar 081-844 1494).

For salads, grilled vegetables, choose from these three extra virgin oils: Masseria (from Puglia), soft, green, bittersweet, not too peppery, pounds 12 for 750ml (Danmar); San Giuliano Fruttata, pounds 12 for 750ml (Eurochoice 081-653 9422); Sainsbury's di Canino, an Umbrian oil, from north of Rome, fruity, pounds 2.29 for 250ml.

MARK LEWIS, OIL BUYER

Mark Lewis buys olive oil for Harvey Nichols. This is a selection from his own stock, which comprises 50 extra virgin olive oils.

For light frying: Molise EV Italia blend, pounds 7.45 per half-litre, and Kalamata EV (Greek), pounds 4.45 per litre. For basting grilled meats: Valle de Baux (from Provence), a rich, 'olivey' flavour, pounds 18 per litre. For salads or with mashed potato: Oro Magina EV unfiltered (Spanish), pounds 4.99 per half litre. For mozarella and tomato salads and dressings: Podere Cogno, from Castellina (Tuscany), pounds 8.95 half litre.

CHARLES CAREY, OIL MERCHANT

A selection from his own stock (081-740 1335).

For high temperature frying: Plaignol, from Provence, bland, nutty, earthy, pounds 5.50 half litre.

For dressing meat or vegetables while roasting or grilling: A l'Olivier from Nice, sweet, fully- flavoured, 'olivey', pounds 9.70 per litre.

For dressing new potatoes or mixing with mashed: Tenuta di Sarageno, pounds 14 for 750 ml.

For drizzling on cooked vegetables, asparagus, samphire, purple broccoli, grilled fish, baked salmon, salad dressings with balsamic vinegar: Granverde Colonna extra virgin cold-pressed with lemons, pounds 11.85 per half litre.

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