IT IS not advisable to take 40 teaspoons of olive oil at one sitting, yet last Monday we invited a panel of expert tasters to do just that. They were: Maria Jose Sevilla, author of Life and Food in Basque Country, host of the recent BBC TV series, Spain on a Plate; Anna del Conte, author of the dictionary The Gastronomy of Italy and a series of distinguished cookbooks; Philip Britten, chef at the Capital Hotel in London; and oil merchants Charles and Sika Carey.
The differences were startling. Oils from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece bore so little resemblance to one another that they were grouped separately for tasting and scoring; otherwise we would have been scoring chalk against cheese.
The good quality French oils were gold, ripe and slightly floral. The Italian ones tended to the green and were blended to deliver a good peppery punch. The Greek oils were rich, golden and relatively mild. The southern Spanish oils were yellow, clean and discreet. The Portuguese oils had a hard, rancid quality - apparently a valued style where it is produced. Unsurprisingly, the top-scoring Italian oils were all estate bottled, highly perfumed and expensive.
For every different style of oil there is a different use. Clean, light Andalusian oils are reliable fryers. The herbaceous, estate-bottled Italian oils are perfect to finish a grilled fish or soup.
National distinctions are only rendered useless when it comes to the cheapest commercial oils, generally made from fruit of several different countries and blended for a pale yellow, bland working oil. These were tasted in two other categories: pure and extra virgin. Do not be misled by 'pure': it means that it is a mixture of chemically refined and virgin oil.
Pure oils would do little to flavour a plate of spaghetti, yet they are not to be sniffed at: in Mediterranean homes, they do the work of corn oil and the better ones, such as Plagnol, go into sauces and dressings.
All the other oils tasted were extra virgin. As a rule, virgin oils will have acidity of less than 3.3 per cent, extra virgin ones less than 1 per cent. Most were cold-pressed yet, according to Charles Carey, centrifuge technology has made this distinction somewhat redundant.
Oils were poured into wine glasses, which we smelled, then sampled using teaspoons. As a sharp, peppery burn built up in the back of our throats, we turned to sharp, tart green apples, fresh baguettes and mineral water for relief.
Those who buy olive oil for the shape of the bottle should beware. The Italian oil, Colavita, came in a folksy bottle and was described by Sika Carey as smelling of 'rotting fruit' and 'tasting of axle grease'. And those who buy for colour and brightness might be disappointed. One of the best oils of the tasting, the Nunez de Prado, was unfiltered and cloudy. Two of the brightest, one French, one Greek, tasted unpleasant.
None of the organic oils performed well and their prices were extraordinarily high. Sadly, we had to disqualify our sample of one of the best organic oils, the Spanish L'Estornell, which was rancid. But we found a wonderfully good value oil in the Kydonia from Crete.
For the language employed in describing the oils, we owe thanks to Charles Carey and the Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson, to whom he first turned to develop the right words for oils. Just as wine rarely tastes of grapes, olive oil rarely tastes of olives.
'Fruity' oil might smell of apples or even bananas. 'Earthy' is sometimes used in the poetic, complimentary sense but, more technically, will literally refer to dirt in the pressing, resulting in a musty quality. 'Rough' will mean it leaves an unpleasantly sticky mouth. A 'fatty' or 'greasy' oil will have come from over-ripe olives. 'Flat' will mean there is little aroma. 'Peppery' or 'bitter' will note the astringency - often highly valued, obtained by blending oils from young green olives.
The best English reference and cookbook is The Essential Olive Oil Companion by Anne Dolamore (Macmillan, pounds 10.95). Where the Careys import specific oils, their marks were discounted.
Bath: The Fine Cheese Company, 29 Walcot Street
Gloucestershire: The Flour Bag, Burford Street, Lechlade
Gwent, Irma Fingal-Rock, 64 Marrow Street, Monmouth
Humberside: James Patrick Delicatessen, 11 The Weir, Hessle, Hull
Oxfordshire: Jordan's, The Market, Thame; Thorn's, 31 Oxford Street, Woodstock
Suffolk: Adnam's, The Kitchen Store, Victoria Street, Southwold
Surrey: Secrett Farm Shop, Hurst Farm, Chapel Lane, Milford
West Sussex: Comestibles, Church Hill, Midhurst
Wiltshire: Mackintosh of Marlborough, 42a The High Street
Scotland: Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh
SUPERMARKET EXTRA VIRGIN OIL
***Safeway (500ml, pounds 1.98): 'Slightly green and very peppery tasting' - MJS
**Tesco (500ml, pounds 2.14): 'Well balanced character' - MJS; 'Good aroma' - ADC
**Sainsbury (500ml, pounds 1.99): 'Soft and delicate, not unpleasant' - CC
**Asda (500ml, pounds 2.15): 'Mild working oil' - EG
**Waitrose (500ml, pounds 2.09): 'Slightly fatty and lacks fruit' - MJS
*Gateway branded as Somerfield (500ml, pounds 1.89): 'Greasy taste followed by some fruit' - SC
BLENDED PURE OLIVE OILS
****James Plagnol (500ml, approx pounds 4.65): 'Deeper on aroma than typical; attractive taste' - MJS; 'Class of its own; perfect for mayonnaise' - EG
***Tesco (500ml, pounds 1.79): 'Just the right pepper for a cooking oil' - ADC
**Sainsbury (500ml, pounds 1.69): 'Only slightly gutsier than corn oil for frying' - EG
**Waitrose (500ml, pounds 1.79): 'Light, delicate and clean' - CC
**Safeway (500ml, pounds 1.79): 'Fragrant but rather dull' - CC
**Gateway branded as Somerfield (500ml, pounds 1.49): 'Tasteless but clean' - CC
**Carbonell (500ml, pounds 1.95, Tesco and Sainsbury's): 'Delicate, harmless, good if you don't like olive oil' - CC
*Ybarra (500ml, pounds 1.90, R Garcia & Son, London W10): 'Light, clean, typical of southern Spain' - MJS
Asda (500ml, pounds 1.79): 'No odour, thin, chemical taste with harsh aftertaste' - SC
Olio Sasso (500ml, pounds 2.50, R Garcia & Son) 'Awful, greasy, horrid' - CC
BRANDED EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OILS
*****Azienda Agricola Ravida (750ml, pounds 11.50, I Camisa & Son, London W1 and delicatessens): 'Smells of vegetation, with a deep leafy flavour - lovely' - ADC
*****Colonna (1 litre, pounds 15.90, The Oil Merchant): 'Grassy nose and taste, then fruit flavour with a clean finish' - EG; 'Best complexity of the tasting' - MJS
*****Le Vieux Moulin (1 litre, pounds 12.75, Conran Shop, London SW3 and good delicatessens): 'Pure, but slightly toasty, apple- like smell, smooth and fruity taste' - PB
*****Nunez de Prado (500ml, pounds 7.50, Mortimer & Bennett, London W4 and delicatessens): 'Slightly green, real fruit, superb oil; the sediment is natural. This oil is unfiltered' - MJS
*****Trattoria Dell 'Ugo (750ml, pounds 12.55, Harrods, London SW3): 'Grassy, fresh nose, but less fruit in taste; a light but complex and attractive oil' - MJS
****Kydonia (500ml, pounds 3.25, Waitrose; pounds 3.99, Safeway in London and South-east): 'Almost floral smell; complex to taste with full, balanced flavour' - EG
****Laudemio (500ml, pounds 13.95, Vivian's, Richmond, Surrey): 'Smells of apples, tastes leafy' - PB; 'Good nose but bitter' - MJS
***Athena (500ml, pounds 2.49, Safeway; pounds 2.90, Tesco; pounds 2.49, Asda; pounds 2.49, Gateway, from September): 'Thick texture, with good balance of fruit and acidity' - EG; 'Gutsy' - SC
***Mani (500ml, pounds 3.75, Safeway in London and South-east): 'Deep earthy smell, fat fruity taste with pepper finish' - SC
***Mani Organic (750ml, pounds 8.85, The Oil Merchant and specialist delicatessens): 'Deep gold with greenish tinge, good fruit and attractive bitterness' - MJS
***Carbonell (500ml, pounds 2.49, Tesco; pounds 2.95, R Garcia & Son, London W10; 750ml, pounds 2.90, Safeway): 'Very golden, classic Andalusian oil, bitter, good for cooking' - MJS
***La Baceda (1 litre, pounds 9.50, Corney & Barrow, London W11): 'Fatty, smooth and bland at the start with a peppery finish' - EG
**Carbonell Special Selection (750ml, pounds 3.95, Safeway): 'Slightly bitter and earthy flavour' - ADC
**Cypressa (500ml, pounds 2, R Garcia & Son and Cypriot shops; pounds 2.59 select branches of Safeway): 'Bland nose, but has a touch of harshness' - CC
*Astron Messinias Soil Association approved as becoming organic (250ml, pounds 1.69, Portobello Wholefoods, London W10): 'Lovely consistency but not good to taste' - ADC
*Hellenic Kalamata (250ml, pounds 1.49, R Garcia & Son): 'Slightly unclean and fatty' - MJS
*Provence Regime becoming organic (500ml, pounds 2.69, Portobello Wholefoods): 'Leaves an unpleasant back taste' - ADC
*Gallo (750ml, pounds 3.50, R Garcia & Son): 'Rancid smell and a hard taste' - SC
*La Rosa (750ml, pounds 9.50, Bibendum Wine Warehouse, London NW1): 'Nutty smell, slightly fatty, slightly rancid' - MJS
*Di Canino (250ml, pounds 2.29, Sainsbury's; pounds 2.29, Safeway): 'Leafy, rounded, peppery finish' - CC
*Novello Fior Fiore (250ml, pounds 2.19, Safeway): 'Fresh green appearance, watery dull flavour' - CC
*La Bioteca organic (750ml, pounds 7.44, Real Food, London W9): 'Smells of thin linseed' - PB
*Colavita (500ml, pounds 3.49, Safeway): 'Smells of sweet rotting fruit and axle grease, tastes harsh' - SC; 'Bitter with prolonged aftertaste, a difficult oil' - MJS
Our 8 August olive oil tasting mistakenly credited Di Canino Extra Virgin Olive Oil, described as 'leafy, rounded with a peppery finish', as available at Safeway. It is exclusive to Sainsbury at pounds 2.29 for 250ml.Reuse content