Almost all Tuscan vineyards are interspersed with olive groves; olives are the other big crop of the region. Consequently, most producers make olive oil in addition to wine and there is an equal variety of styles available. I have to be careful here since, whilst my palate is accustomed to wine, it is not used to tasting pure olive oil. Many producers drizzle it over the local bread (which is unsalted) though one producer served it to us in a tasting glass, like wine.
Olive oil is a delicate beast and easily killed by light. 9 years ago the EU (bless ‘em) woke up to this and decreed that it could only be sold in dark green bottles or tins. So if you keep yours at home in a clear bottle get a dark one instead. It also picks up other flavours so keep the cork in the bottle! In the UK we’ve only really caught on to what the Italians, Spanish et al have known for centuries – after all it wasn’t that many years ago that you could only buy olive oil in the UK at the Chemists, and only then in small bottles that lived in the medicine cupboard and not the kitchen! My parents thought it was really only good for de-waxing your ears and getting the fluff out of your belly button…
Legally olive oil has to carry a “best before” date (rather than an expiry date) because it is a foodstuff. This always strikes me as a bit odd for something that has been used as a preservative for centuries. But then again, as one food broker we know pointed out, he sources salt for a UK supermarket that comes from a deposit that is hundreds of thousands of years old, and that has a “best before” date on it too… best before the next ice age presumably…
When olive oil is fresh it’s green in colour. This is because the olives (only picked in Tuscany once the grape harvest is in) are not 100% ripe. In time the colour will change from green to yellow. Olive oil will begin to solidify at 4˚C and once it’s done that it will separate and will not restore itself once it warms up again. To taste it (if tasting from a glass, like wine) you find the same flavours as with everything else: sweetness on the front, bitter at the back and salty and sour at the sides, acidity underneath. You then swallow it and you get an extra flavour, pepper in the throat and, as a general rule, the more pepper you find when you swallow it (and you must swallow it to get the pepper-in-the-throat sensation) the fresher the oil.
There are two ways to press olive oil, cold press and hot press. Of these a cold pressing produces the better oil because it’s easier to separate out the water element, but it’s labour intensive and correspondingly expensive. Hot pressing (and you’ll never see it on a label – you might as well print the words “mass produced”) is the more commercial because it’s cheaper and faster, but more water remains so the oil is less fine. Some producers (including our own Felix Gasull from Spain) opt for a low temperature (but not completely cold) pressing at night which still produces a high quality oil, but helps keep to a reasonable price too. Prices for the finest oils can be pretty high.
Olive oil consumption is the UK is increasing, but an average Italian family of 2 adults and 1 child consumes about 50kg of olive oil each year. An average American probably consumes the same in cheeseburgers… at least we in the UK are now starting to recognise the benefits of olive oil and the nature of its friendlier fats.
Whilst on the subject of America, did you know that in the USA and Canada it is legally permissible to dilute olive oil with up to 20% of sunflower oil and still call it Extra Virgin? Sneaky eh? As indeed is the fact that you can import olive oil from (say) Spain to Italy and, as long as it’s bottled in Italy, it can be called Italian olive oil. You could argue that this is no different to buying a Japanese car that’s been made in Sunderland, but surely labelling should be about clarity? So, please remember that any country of origin on your olive oil refers only to where it was bottled/canned and not necessarily where the olives were grown. That’s also pretty sneaky in my book actually come to think of it. To get round this you need to decode the label. Look at the label and you should find no more than 2 names on it. These will be the grower’s name, and the producer’s name (who presses and bottles it). They may be the same chap of course in which case you’ll only find one name. Marvellous. But if you see 3 (or more) names you’re probably looking at a product that’s going for the cheaper end of the market and has been imported from another country and is trying to cash in on the perceived prestige of being from a different country.
Our Felix Gasull olive oil is Spanish and comes from Reus which is near Tarragona, just down the coast from Barcelona. It’s Extra Virgin (the highest quality grade characterised by not more than 0.8% acidity) and made from “Arbequina” olives. The olives are hand-harvested and transported to their mill to be milled at a low temperature during the night. The hand-harvesting is important since it enables more effective removal of the leaves which can adversely affect the flavour of the final oil if too many left in. The result is a single varietal oil of low acidity, with a slightly fruity taste and almond, fennel, nuts and anise notes. It’s great for salads, dipping, frying, roasting, anything in fact as it’s a good all-rounder. Yours for only £7.95 a litre. Order now here.
Prices correct as at 2nd December 2016