Olive oil

Olive oil

By
Skye Gyngell
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781844006212
Photographer
Jason Lowe

Probably the single most important ingredient I use in my kitchen is extra virgin olive oil. It enhances the flavours of nearly all our vegetable dishes and salads, as well as soups and simply grilled meat and fish.

Obtained from the first pressing of the olives, extra virgin olive oil can be robust – tasting peppery, nutty or grassy, sometimes even of hay! Other varieties can be light, fruity and elegant. The colour can range from deep murky olivey green to pale and golden, taking in all the shades in between. And the viscosity varies from light to medium; some oils are even dense and heavy. The price, too, can range from modest to wildly expensive.

You really need to try different olive oils, to find those you like the taste of and can comfortably afford. Look for labels indicating that the oil has been bottled on the estate on which the olives have been grown, hand-picked and pressed. This is usually a sign of superior quality.

Olives are picked in the autumn. It is only when they are properly ripe that harvesting can begin. The French claim that the ‘oil is in the olive’ only after St Catherine’s day on 25th November, the Lebanese say that All Saints day on 1st November marks the date. Most farmers, however, will tell you that the best time to begin harvesting is after the first rain, when the olives become easier to pick. Olives harvested early produce oil that is stronger and greener in colour with the best health-giving properties, but the yield is generally lower, so many farmers prefer to wait a little longer. In my view, oils from olives picked early have the best flavour.

The finest olive oil is created when oil is extracted purely by cold pressing, with neither heat nor chemicals used in the extraction process. To be of fine quality, an oil must have less than one per cent oleic acidity. Any higher percentage could mean that the oil has been extracted from damaged or badly handled fruit.

We use several olive oils in the restaurant, including a lovely, slightly grassy, green oil from a small estate in Friuli in Northern Italy, as well as oils from Provence and as far away as Lebanon. Occasionally we work with some punchy oils from Spain and the very popular robust oils for which Tuscany is so famous. The one I love above all others though is the light, golden, delicate, very slightly fruity olive oil from Liguria. Made purely from a variety of olive known as taggiasca, it tastes wonderful and always gives me a feeling of utter contentment… making me smile.

Try different olive oils to discover your favourites. The best way to taste an olive oil is to pour a little into a glass and sip it (not directly out of your hand as is sometimes suggested). Let it roll around your tongue for a moment or two and take in the aroma from the glass. The overwhelming taste and smell, no matter how delicate, should be of the fruit from which it has been pressed.

Controversially perhaps, I use good olive oil for all my cooking both at home and at the restaurant, with the exception of deep-frying, when I use corn oil. I feel that what you cook with should always taste good straight from the bottle – it is never merely a cooking medium to me. In cases where high temperature cooking is called for, I’ll use a mild-tasting light olive oil rather than extra virgin. I tend to save the best extra virgin olive oils for dishes that I feel showcase the virtues of a full-flavoured oil. And, of course, an olive oil must sit happily alongside the flavours it is paired with.

As for infused olive oils, I have yet to buy one that I think tastes good. Quick to oxidise and spoil, these oils do not taste vibrant and fresh to me. I prefer to infuse my own olive oil – in small quantities for immediate use. Delicate lemon-infused oil, known as agrumato in Italy, is my favourite...

Lemon-infused olive oil Finely pare the zest from 3 lemons in wide strips using a swivel vegetable peeler, place in a small pan and pour on 250ml extra virgin olive oil (light in flavour, such as Ligurian). Warm gently to blood heat (around 37°C), for just 10 minutes, to release the lemon aroma. Remove from the heat and let stand for 30 minutes before using to enable the flavours to settle and become acquainted. Use on the day of making ideally, or within 24 hours.

Like all beautiful things, extra virgin olive oil should be treated with respect and care. It does not respond well to heat, light or exposure to air, all of which cause it to oxidise. It really needs to be kept in a cool dark place – a cool larder is perfect – and used within 6 months. I occasionally keep a small bottle to hand by the stove but only because I know it will be used within a day or two...

Butter has its place in cooking – lending richness and a wonderful velvety smoothness. I do use it to cook with, but more often I will reach for a bottle of olive oil. It is, of course, much better for you than butter, but as always, taste to me is the most important thing – and the flavour of good olive oil is second to none.

Fragrant lemon-infused olive oil is lovely spooned over chargrilled chicken or fish, or drizzled over very fresh young sheep’s or cow’s milk curd.

Recipes in this Chapter

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