If you’ve ever had experience of travelling to the Mediterranean basin (France, Spain, Italy and Greece), you cannot have failed to notice the myriad of gnarled olive trees growing in the dry, arid land.
Although olive trees were used to create olive oil by 4500 BC in Canaan, it is this picturesque area of the world that today produces the vast majority of olives with Andalucía in Spain being the most prolific. Other countries, including Syria, Turkey and Australia, are also rapidly expanding their production levels of this sought-after liquid.
I remember the days when olive oil was bought from a chemist, heated and then had cotton wool dipped in it before being gently put into one’s ear as a remedy for earache. Nowadays its use is multifarious but olive oil has become like liquid gold in the gastronomic and cooking arena.
Mediterranean olives are harvested when quite ripe in late autumn and early winter, many being gathered in the traditional way, by hand. The fruit is cleaned and gently crushed, without breaking the stones, then the paste is spread on fibrous mats, stacked on top of each other and pressed. The resultant fluid is left to settle and separate to produce a delicious, thick, green-ish liquid just as it was in Roman days.
The most difficult aspect of choosing an olive oil is finding the one that suits your taste the best. Sampling olive oil is a bit like wine tasting – comparisons of colour, smell, flavour being what one is looking for. The taste of one olive oil may not suit one person while another may love it – the grassy, peppery flavour of one oil may not compare with the herby, fiery, nutty flavour of another. The only way to be sure is to choose the olive oil that suits you and every now and then taste another alongside it to compare.
Olive oil comes in various grades and has, depending on opinion, different uses. The main grades are ‘extra virgin’, which is oil that is obtained from the first cold-pressing of the olives. This is an olive oil that I would use for simple salad dressings and to sprinkle over the top of a dish just before serving. You will be amazed how much last minute flavour this adds. ‘Virgin’ olive oil is recommended by many as having a good, if not perfect, aroma and taste while ‘blended’ olive oil gives a year-on-year consistent product. Both these oils make a good dressing but also give great flavours when used for frying. Then of course we could look for something that’s a bit special, usually a single-estate oil for those moments when something really tasty is needed.
Equal care is needed for the liquid gold’s storage. Olive oil can deteriorate if not looked after, so my advice is to keep it in dark bottles in dark places. Now all you have to do is keep tasting olive oils until you find one that suits you. For me, it’s got to be a peppery single-estate Italian extra virgin olive oil but recent, fairly heated conversations and tastings with my friend Christos from Rhodes nearly persuaded me that Greek olive oil was better, so its up to you!