Olives: The Big Ingredient

The Greeks consume the most followed closely by the Italians and Spanish, writes Christopher Hirst, and like fine wine, olives just get better, juicier and more expensive with age
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In any article on olives, it is near-obligatory to quote Laurence Durrell's sonorous opinion: "A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water." This statement may appear to be more poetic licence than literal truth, but fossilised olive leaves from 60,000 years ago can currently be seen in an exhibition about olives in the Academy of Athens. The leaves come from the oleaster, a wild predecessor of the domestic tree, which bears edible fruit, but with a very large stone. Almost certainly, it formed part of the diet of our Neolithic ancestors 10,000 years ago (the earliest traces of wine date back 7,000 years).

Cultivation began, probably in Jordan, before 3,000BC, then spread through the Mediterranean. The first olive press found in Greece dates from 2,500BC. Ancient Greeks and Romans consumed 25 litres of olive oil per person per year. Only the modern Greeks manage to get through as much. The Italians and Spanish consume 12.5 litres, the French use 4.5kg, the British a mere 1.4kg.

The olive is unusual in all sorts of ways. The handsome, gnarled olive tree can fruit for more than a thousand years. The olive is the only fruit that contains large quantities of fat. In their natural form, olives are unpalatably bitter. Table olives undergo a complex curing process involving water, caustic soda and brine. Green and black olives come from the same tree, their colour merely indicates a different stage of maturity. Different hybrids are grown for table olives and olive oil. The colour of olive oil is no guide to flavour. Light yellow oils can be superb, whereas dark green oils may be flavourless.

The Spanish are the world's greatest producers of olives, harvesting more than one million tons each year. The Italians grow half as much, whereas the Greeks produce 400,000 tons. Yet Greece leads the way in the production of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). As the wine writer Burton Anderson notes, this rather curious appellation conveys "the curious conception that virginity in olive oils may transcend a state which in mortals is considered absolute". Actually, it means that the oil has been extracted by purely mechanical means (without use of chemicals), contains less than 0.8 per cent of oleic acid and has passed the stringent tasting test of the International Olive Oil Council. In olive oil, acid is bad, fruitiness is good.

About 80 per cent of Greek oil is accorded EVOO status, compared with 50 per cent in Italy and about 25 per cent in Spain. So how come we see so much Italian extra virgin olive oil in our shops? The answer is simple: Italy imports a great deal of olive oil for re-export. The country exports up to five times as much olive oil as it produces. The difference is made up with oils from Tunisia, Turkey and Spain, with 10 to 15 per cent EVOO from Greece being used to fix the taste.

Like wine, the very best olive oils come from areas where olives do not grow easily. Many believe the single-estate oils from Tuscany and Provence are without parallel, but you can pay £12 to £15 per bottle. For everyday use, Greek extra virgin olive oil is a good bet. You know it's the real thing. Selling at £4.29 for 500 ml, the oil from Sitia, Crete, imported by the Gaea company, has twice won the engagingly named "Intense Fruitiness Section" of the International Olive Oil Council. But as Gaea's boss Aris Kefalogiannis notes: "Every Mediterranean village will say its olive oil is the best."

Just as the contents of a bottle of olive oil may not correspond to the label, so table olives can sometimes be "speeded" along their complex route to edibility. "If black olives have a uniform colour, this means they have been chemically treated," says Kefalogiannis. "Greeks won't put up with them." Black olives should vary in colour. Those growing on the western side or the top will be darker. Olives left on the tree until December will have a fuller and richer taste, but wastage is higher and there is a risk of losing the crop because of frost.

Olive oil is claimed to have distinctive health properties, particularly for reducing the level of coronary disease. It is, of course, excellent mixed with a splash of wine vinegar as a salad dressing, but its uses are virtually unlimited. Pastry made with olive oil is distinctively superb. Potatoes are stunning when roasted with a little olive oil. For my money, good olive oil never tastes better than when drizzled on thick Italian soups like rebollito or pasta e fagiola. Just the thought urges my salivary glands into hyper-drive.


Sierra Rica, Organic Foods

Sierra Rica, a tiny company that exports organic foods from rural Andalucia in Spain, was the brainchild of Alastair Brown. Previously a corporate financier in London, Brown's passion for cooking and his hispanophile tendencies, inherited from his Chilean grandmother, led him to move to Aracena - an area famed for its groves of 15th-century chestnut trees - with his wife Janie and their three children. There he came up with the idea of creating an organic food business based, initially, on preparing and selling Spanish chestnuts.

In four years Brown has developed a range of organic products made from local produce, including marrons glacés (chestnuts cooked in syrup and glazed), an organic Bloody Mary mix, sauces and soups. He has recently developed a range of organic soups for Antony Worrall Thompson.

Sierra Rica stocks outlets such as Harvey Nichols and Fresh & Wild, and is also exporting to the United States and Japan.