What is extra virgin olive oil?
Before we can understand ‘extra virgin’ we first have to clarify the word ‘virgin’. What it describes, quite simply, is oil pressed from the fruit of the olive tree under conditions that cause no deterioration of the finished oil – the olives are not damaged, bruised or subjected to adverse temperatures or too much air, and they must not have undergone any additional treatment such as heat or blending (other than with other virgin olive oil). The supreme quality is measured by acidity or, more precisely, the lack of it – too much acidity gives a harsher flavour, which can, with skill, be refined out. What is simply termed olive oil is often a blend of lesser-quality refined oils with some virgin added to give the right balance of flavour. Extra virgin olive oil could, in fact, have another name – perfect virgin olive oil, because this is precisely what it is: virgin olive oil with no flaws whatsoever. By law the acidity of extra virgin olive oil is never more than 0.8 per cent, and what does this mean? Flavour. First there is an aromatic fragrance, then a sweetness not marred by acidity, and then an abundant taste of fruit, verdant and luscious, not tasting like olives exactly but like some other mysterious, unique fruit. Like very fine wine, extra virgin olive oil is both rich and flavoursome.
Which country produces the best olive oil? Difficult to answer, this. The olives of each country have their own character and flavour, which will even vary from region to region: a Tuscan olive oil, for instance, is different to a Ligurian olive oil. If I were being a purist I would suggest that Provençal dishes should be made with oils made in Provence, and Italian, Greek or Spanish dishes made with the oil produced in that country. But unless you do masses of cooking it’s best to find an olive oil you’re happy with, and my recommendation is to have an extra virgin oil for special occasions, along with an everyday
Other oils: What you need to be careful of is having endless bottles of oils that you hardly use, because the shelf life of any oil is never very long. However, I would include the following in my store cupboard – along with olive oil – as a good selection for both cooking and making dressings.
Groundnut oil: An excellent all-rounder with the advantage of having no marked flavour yet at the same time being quite luscious. It is perfect for making mayonnaise, with just a little olive oil added for flavour, and it’s an extremely useful oil for cooking – oriental dishes in particular, because with these the flavour of olive oil is alien and too strong. Warning: because groundnut oil is made from peanuts, people who suffer from any nut allergy should avoid it (and warn anyone cooking for them as well).
Grapeseed oil: This is an alternative mildly flavoured oil. It’s more expensive than groundnut oil, but if you are at all worried about the nut-allergy problem, grapeseed oil will do the same work both in dressings and in cooking.
Sesame oil: An excellent oil, and rich in nutty sesame flavour. It’s great in oriental dishes and dressings, but needs to be used very sparingly, as the flavour can be overwhelming.
Walnut oil: This is a great addition to the repertoire of oils. It has all the flavour of crushed walnuts and is therefore particularly good in salads that contain walnuts. However, it does become rancid quite quickly, so monitor its shelf life once it’s opened.
Flavoured oils: These are definitely not for me. Apart from the fact that they take up valuable storage space, it seems logical that if you want to incorporate other flavours in your oils, they are best added fresh. So add your own garlic, chilli, lemon or herbs and so on as and when you want to.
How to store oils: This has to be in the coolest place possible, though not in the fridge as oil solidifies when it gets too cold. Light is not good for oils either, so a cool, dark corner would be the best place to store them. Most oils have date stamps, so watch these, and although it is more expensive to buy in smaller quantities, it is still cheaper than throwing out stale oil that never got used.
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