When Ruthie Rogers, co-founder of The River Café, appeared on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs recently, she chose as her luxury a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, preferably the oil from either Felsina or Fontodi, two of her favourite Tuscan estates – and just as famous for their wines.
The histories of the olive tree and the vine have been inextricably linked since ancient times, especially in countries surrounding the Mediterranean, where olives and vines supplied not just oil and wine, but valuable wood, and – in the case of olive oil – fuel for heating and lighting. Wine, of course, has been justly celebrated for many centuries, with bottles from the finest estates and the best vintages commanding ever-higher prices around the world. In the past few years, though, olive oil has started to be valued in the same way – these days, any self-respecting gourmets worth their Himalayan pink salt would be as delighted to receive a bottle of top-quality olive oil for Christmas as a bottle of first‑growth claret.
So what determines whether a particular oil deserves its hefty price tag? As with wines, spirits or perfumes, a pretty bottle is a fine thing, especially as a gift, but its contents need to live up to its packaging. Interestingly, many of the same variables that determine the quality of wine also apply to olive oil. Just like vines, each variety of olive tree has its own characteristics and picks up other flavours from the soil in which it grows, even the herbs that grow alongside it; the trees, like vines, need to be carefully pruned to produce the best fruit; the olives need to be sorted and pressed soon after picking, with any extraneous leaves and stalks removed; the press itself should be scrupulously clean and able to extract only top-quality oil, without crushing the stones; and the oil needs to be bottled and stored in as rigorously hygienic a manner as the top wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, avoiding extreme heat and bright light.
On a label, the only real indication of quality is the phrase “extra virgin olive oil”, which means that the amount of free acidity in the oil is less than 0.8 per cent; when heat or solvents are used to extract oil of inferior quality, the level of acidity is much higher. Extra virgin olive oil will also have undergone organoleptic testing: a suitably qualified expert smells and tastes it to make sure it has the desired fruity characteristics and is free of sensory defects. Other descriptions on the label are less reliable. The phrase “cold pressed” has no internationally accepted definition, although the best oil is never pressed at temperatures above 27°C (olives pressed on a chilly November day in Tuscany or Liguria might still need to be heated a little, a problem rarely encountered during the Puglian harvest a month earlier), while other descriptors – “pure”, “handpicked”, “unfiltered”, “late harvest”, for example – are similarly unregulated. The best way to determine the quality of an olive oil, as with any other foodstuff, is simply to taste it.
Allowing that this may not always be possible, you might instead rely on the word of some of Britain’s best chefs, who use olive oil every day and often forge strong relationships with the olive growers themselves. Take Giorgio Locatelli, the chef/proprietor of Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli in London’s Seymour Street. He grew up in the north of Italy, where the most common fats used in cooking are butter and lardo (cured pork fat), not olive oil, but he has become increasingly fascinated with the cooking of Italy’s sunny south, especially Sicily. So beguiled, in fact, that he is now the proud co-owner – with Antonio Alfano, a third-generation importer of Italian produce to the UK – of an olive grove on the island. “Antonio inherited it with his brothers, but they weren’t interested in it, so that gave us the chance to turn it into something special.
“I keep a low profile. It’s quite important in Sicily not to show your face too much, especially if you’re from the north – I’m a foreigner there, really. But what we did was to drastically shorten the time between picking and pressing, to avoid any of the moulds that can give the oil a bad flavour.” His herbal, spicy oil, called Locadeli, is available from Fortnum & Mason (£16.99 for 500ml).
Locatelli is also a fan of oils from other parts of Italy – Armando Manni’s from Tuscany, for instance, made in minute amounts and sold in 100ml bottles. His first oil, Per Mio Figlio (“for my child”), was created for his son Lorenzo; his second, Per Me (“for me”), is, he says, “more structured and, well, ‘adult’.”
The oils (€46 for a gift pack with one of each bottle from Manni) are very low in acidity and high in polyphenols. These bitter-tasting compounds are antioxidants and have two important effects on olive oil. Firstly, oil that is high in polyphenols will last longer – antioxidants slow deterioration of the oil – and, stored away from heat and light, should still taste fresh and grassy a year or more after bottling. High polyphenol levels are typically associated with olives picked early in the season, often greener in colour, more vegetal in flavour and more peppery than oil from olives picked later.
Secondly, antioxidants are widely believed to have health benefits, especially in limiting the damage caused by “bad” cholesterol while preserving “good” cholesterol, which can help ward off cardiac disease and a host of other ailments. In any case, the fatty-acid content of extra virgin olive oil (unlike any other oil or fat) is almost exclusively monounsaturated, also linked with a healthy Mediterranean diet.
Chef and restaurateur José Pizarro loves the verdant, punchy oils he recalls from his childhood in Extremadura, western Spain. “Life is not life without extra virgin olive oil,” he says. “I like to smell greenness, herbs and cut grass; then, when you taste it, it should say, ‘Hello, I’m here!’ and explode in your mouth. It should be balanced on the palate – remember, olive oil is a fruit juice.
“Of course, you need to match the oil to the dish. Peppery, vegetal, early-harvest oil will kill a green salad – you won’t taste anything except the oil – but it’s perfect for a tomato salad. And I’d generally use a softer oil for mayonnaise. But for merluza a la romana, deep-fried hake, I use a strong-flavoured oil and some pimentón de la Vera, smoked paprika, in the mayonnaise and it works really well.” Pizarro imports his own oil from Extremadura, but also likes Oro del Desierto – “desert gold” (£9.95 for 250ml from Manuka Wholefoods) – from Almería, Andalucia, and Castillo de Canena First (€25.85 for 500ml from OrigenOliva, a site with dozens of other excellent Spanish oils).
Olives, like grapes, are an agricultural product and fare better in some years than in others: last year’s Tuscan harvest, for example, was severely hit by the combination of a mild winter (which failed to kill bugs) and a rainy summer. As chef, writer and shopkeeper Alastair Little points out by way of illustration, “On the Capezzana estate they have 27,000 trees and they didn’t produce a single bottle of oil.” Little’s delicatessen, Tavola, in Westbourne Grove, normally stocks at least a couple of Tuscan oils, “but our producers just couldn’t supply us after last year’s harvest,” he says.
He does, however, recommend two oils in particular: the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi’s Laudemio (£28.95 for 500ml from Oil & More and Harrods) – “It’s in a very smart, perfume-like bottle and the oil inside is terrific” – and the oil made by Marina Colonna in Molise, southern Italy, which he still stocks at Tavola: “She’s a genuine princess and her oil is excellent.” It can also be found online at Ocado (£19.99 for 750ml).
Nor should olive-oil fans confine their attentions to Spain and Italy: Provençal oils (try Picholine from Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille, €17 for 500ml) and Greek oils – the very smartly liveried Lambda Ultra Premium extra virgin (£50 for 500ml from Harrods) makes a rather swanky gift – as well as oils from California, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South America, all have their devotees.
The market is now awash with terrific extra virgin olive oils, but it isn’t just the British who have taken some convincing that they are something worth seeking out. Giorgio Locatelli recalls taking a bottle of The River Café’s newly pressed olive oil made on the Fontodi estate to his father one Christmas (assuming the Canonici 2015 vintage – price yet to be set – is better than the previous year’s, it should be available about now). “He took one taste of it and practically spat it out: he just wasn’t used to oil that was so green and peppery. ‘I wouldn’t even put that in my motorbike!’ he told me.” Bloody Northerners!