Slick oil

There's more to olive oil than extra virgin. Choosing a variety that you like is as complex as picking a good wine.
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As a mark of culinary sophistication, we may soon start choosing olive oils by variety. So, if you don't know your arbequina from your taggiasca, now is the time to bone up (some useful vocabulary is listed on the right).

As a mark of culinary sophistication, we may soon start choosing olive oils by variety. So, if you don't know your arbequina from your taggiasca, now is the time to bone up (some useful vocabulary is listed on the right).

Arbequina, by the way, is an olive variety unique to Lleida in Catalonia, north-east Spain, and taggiasca is the predominant olive of Liguria in north-west Italy. And from this month these are two of the delicious single varieties that are coming on to the market, sold under the Belazu label.

This company believes that olive oil is about to follow the pattern set by wine. Instead of choosing wine by country, the trend is now to buy from your preferred grape style, say chardonnay for whites or for reds, perhaps cabernet sauvignon.

Olive oil cognoscenti, like the Jancis Robinsons and Oz Clarkes of the wine world, can often discriminate between styles in single estate oils and blends. They recognise that frantoio is a superior olive that contributes a certain pepperiness to the most expensive Tuscan oils; and that the lovely Spanish brand Carbonnel is a fruity blend of hojiblanca and picual olives. Experts will also register the sweet, fruity flavours of tanche and picholine olives in the prized oils of Provence, even though production is small.

Thanks to the Mediterranean swing in our diets, most of us have become a bit knowledgeable about oils. There was a stumbling beginning as we climbed the learning curve. We had to deal with definitions; pure olive oil didn't mean pure in our sense of the word, but the opposite, oil which is extracted by boiling, and heavy processing in a factory. "Virginity" was another word which had little to do with purity. It's a word defining the level of acidity. Extra virgin olive oil has the lowest acidity, less than 1 per cent. Cold-pressed oil (ie, oil that has been extracted without the aid of heat) was, we learnt, the tastiest

Cold-pressed was also the most expensive and, prompted by Italian cooks inlcuding Antonio Carluccio and the River Café duo, we learnt to use it carefully on pasta, or to drizzle it over mozzarella and tomato salads or on to grilled fish.

We are now clear on the different uses. Pure oils for cooking, extra virgin for salads and the expensive cold-pressed (which has a peppery flavour) used like a condiment at the last moment.

The best oils, we were led to believe, are those from Italy. For, just as France has a name for great chateau-bottled wines, Italy monopolised olive oil, heavily promoting their estate-bottled oils (mostly from Tuscany) and charging astronomic prices for them, £20 a litre and more. Like a designer label, such names were considered to be a guarantee of quality. But this year, we see that the scene is shifting, and we can expect to see a new generation of oils in the shops.

Anne Dolamore, author of A Buyer's Guide to Olive Oil (Grub Street £10.99), has seen this coming for a long time and alerted me many years ago to some excellent cold-pressed Spanish and Greek oils sold at a small fraction of the price of equivalent Italian oils. The Italians, she says, buy Spanish oil in bulk to blend with their own - for export.

Given that many Italian oils contain Spanish oil, why not buy straight from Spain? "Supermarket customers have the perception that Italian oil is best," says George Bennett, director of the Fresh Olive Company, which markets Belazu. "But we came across many authentic, premium quality oils when we were sourcing table olives." Liguria, Provence and Catalonia were three good regions offering fabulous value, they thought, and these oils retail at only £4.99 for 500ml.

Anne Dolamore, in her book, gives very high ratings to oils made with the arbequina olive, so I was very pleased to be invited to join George (who is the founder of the Fresh Olive Company, which made its name sourcing seasoned table olives that are now to be found in every delicatessen) on a buying trip to Albages, near Lleida, two hours drive west of Barcelona, where he sources his Catalonian Belazu oil.

George's Spanish partner, Edward Pons, has regenerated production of the arbequina olive, spending £300,000 to rebuild an old olive mill to process it in the time-honoured, traditional way.

He has ignored the modern method of crushing olives using high-friction steel hammers which render olive stones to pulp, releasing a certain bitterness. He has recovered heavy old millstones which move slowly to yield sweet oil with no trace of bitterness. But the Pons family do not entirely eschew modern technology, using centrifugal extractors to separate the oil from the bitter alkali juices.

Belazu has acquired a 40-hectare grove, rescuing some 1,500 olive trees from neglect (young people in the area head for the city rather than labour in these hard conditions). Here I watched trees being picked by hand and by a vehicle straight out of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, which grips and shakes the trees for about 10 seconds each, showering leaves and olives from its branches.

Back at t'mill, I saw the olives being processed and I tasted the greeny, golden oil, fruity, with a lingering taste of sweet almonds. Olive oil, unlike most wine, is at its best immediately it has been made, and this is nectar. The Pons family chefs then feasted us with local dishes: tomaquet (a Catalonian version of bruschetta); merluza (Spain's favourite fish, hake to us, gently cooked in olive oil; and escalovada and esqueixada (see recipes). *

Oil lovers' vocabulary

Connoisseurship requires a language of its own. For experts such as Anne Dolamore, terms like the following can help to oil the wheels of conversation...

Positive Fresh; delicate; gentle; sweet; rustic; flowery; grassy (herby, minty or leafy, such as eucalyptus); spicy; nutty; fruity (olives picked at optimum peak of ripeness); and flavours of certain fruit such as apple, pears, melon and lychees, even avocado.

Green or bitter can be good terms, a matter of degree. Also sharp, the taste of very fresh olives. And strong, referring to both taste and aroma.

Moderately negative Aggressive; pungent; assertive.

Negative Rancid (when the oil has oxidised); greasy; fatty; soapy; earthy (dirty olives); flat (lacking character); tired (too old).

Escalivada

Cold grilled vegetable salad

Serves 2

1 aubergine

2 green peppers (or red)

1 large, mild Spanish onion

Cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil

1 (or more) garlic cloves

Sea salt

Roast or grill the vegetables (another way, tricky but effective, is to scorch them over a gas flame, turning until blackened outside, tender inside). To ease the skinning slip them, while still hot, into a plastic bag and seal. After 10 minutes the steam they generate makes then easy to peel.

Remove cores and seeds, trim into neat lengths and arrange in strips. Crush garlic finely and sprinkle on top. Drizzle with your best oil. Season with salt. Let flavours soak in and serve cold with country bread.

Esqueixada

Serve 2 as an appetiser

If you have the patience to desalinate the salt cod, bacalao, this is simplicity itself. The quality of the fish is all important. It needs to be a thick cut steak from a larger cod. The quality of the oil is important too, the arbequina bathing it sweetly while bestowing its own nutty flavour.

250g/9oz salt cod "steak" (from Spanish and Caribbean shops)

1 large tomato, skinned, deseeded, chopped

1 small, mild onion, finely sliced

2 tablespoons best extra virgin olive oil

Splash of red wine vinegar

Soak cod for two days, changing the water two or three times a day. Its rank smell will gradually disappear. Drain, remove skin and bones, and pull to shreds with your fingers.

Toss in a bowl with onion and tomato, oil and vinegar, and leave for several hours before serving - with tasty, good bread.

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