Joe Rogers

Why it pays to be picky about olive oil

It's as much of an art as choosing wine

Why it pays to be picky about olive oil
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There’s a story that foodie types like to wheel out about what a culinary backwater the British Isles used to be. ‘In the 1970s,’ they’ll begin. ‘The only way you could buy olive oil in Britain was as medicine for your blocked ears!’ While we might argue that Italian delis were importing olive oil to our cities since at least the 19thcentury, it’s certainly true that olive oil is better known here than it used to be.

Indeed, the oil shelves at our markets are coming to look like those at a wine shop, with bottles arranged by style and origin. We’ve even seen the arrival of trendy olive oils that follow the paths trodden by coffee and natural wine to satisfy the curious and nerdy. The current generation Extra Virgin Olive Oils – cold pressed, unrefined, and fizzing with goodness – celebrate single origins and makers, and matching different oils to dishes is increasingly common. A well chosen olive oil can be as transformative for a meal as the right bottle of wine.

With that in mind, here’s some of the best Extra Virgil Olive Oil (EVOO) for summer 2022. All of the oils tasted here can be used for a variety of purposes, from frying to dressing salads but we’ll give a few serving suggestions that suit the individual profiles.

Arbequina Organic Extra Virgin olive oil – best for creamy dishes

(Spain – 500ml, £12.50 Iberica)

The house oil of London tapas group Iberica comes from a single estate in Castilla-La Mancha, where two families have worked together to produce olive oil for five generations. Most of the world’s olive oil is sold into a marketplace that supports blenders, much in the same ways as tea or whisky have been historically. While there’s nothing wrong with combining oils from different origins to create a consistent product, the process does have an anonymising effect.

EVOO made with olives from one origin, presented in as natural a state as possible, offer an alternative to mass produced oils. A product that tastes of somewhere. In this bottle you get one olive variety – small, glossy arbequinas – from one single plot.

Tastes like:

Green apples and freshly cut grass with almond, hazelnut, and a little dried fruit. Overall, it’s medium-bodied and clean with a good dose of peppery watercress on the end and some astringency to balance out the sweeter flavours.

The verdict:

This oil would suit a creamy dish to compliment those fruity, spicy notes. Makes excellent backup for some Spanish sheep’s cheese or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

7.5/10

No.1 Chianti Classico Olive Oil P.D.O - best for bread and pasta

(Italy – 500ml, £12, Waitrose)

A combination of four different varieties grown in the Chianti Classico region. The fact that olives often thrive among the vineyards is no accident, together with gapes and grain they formed the three pillars of southern-European food culture for centuries. The so-called Mediterranean triad.

Tastes like:

White pepper, green tomato, green beans, and green chilis – all of which adds up to something pleasantly bitter and mouth-coating. It’s not the most complex entry on the list but it is refreshing, characterful, and very tasty.

The verdict:

For the money, this is pretty excellent. It’ll be versatile enough for frying, dressing, and mopping up with big bits of fresh bread. You could also use it as a sauce for fresh pici – the thick Tuscan pasta you may have seen that Stanley Tucci eating recently – with black pepper and some grated cheese.

7/10

Olive Gregori, Single Variety of Ascolana Tenera, Italy - best for vegetables

(500ml, £36.40, Delicario)

Here we are at the super-high end, with a single origin oil that comes in a stainless-steel cylinder. Italian fine food ultras Delicario insist that the metal jacket is in fact essential for protecting the delicate polyphenols inside from light and oxygen.

These organic compounds supply spice and astringency and are often credited with the cholesterol-lowering effects of olive oil. So those 1970s chemists were right, though its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties will benefit more than just your ears. Needless to say, the health-supporting effects are thought to be most pronounced in au naturel EVOO like this.

Tastes like:

This is serious stuff, Made with Ascolana Tenera olives on a single farm in the province of Ascoli Piceno. It’s bright yellow and intensely aromatic, with green banana, raw sugar cane and lemon zest on the nose. On the palate it’s has more banana along with pine nuts, green almonds, snap peas, wild rocket and black pepper.

The verdict:

That intense pepperiness is going to be difficult for some but if you’re okay with spice this is a great choice. Try it over asparagus or broccoli, quickly griddled and dressed with lemon and crunchy salt. Not cheap by anyone’s standards but great for keeping in reserve for special dinners.

9.5/10

Citizens of Soil, Greece – best for tomatoes

(500ml, £18.50, Shop Cuvée)

This ultra-fashionable entry is popular for a reason. Marketed as a must-have foodie accessory, it’s stocked at vogueish wine shops and packaged like a ruthlessly trendy Riesling. Founders Sarah and Michel Vachon make a point of shouting about the origin of their product, all of which comes from Lianolia olives picked early in the season and pressed by the Amargiotakis family of Dafnes, Crete.

In winemaking the compelling and occasionally knotty conflation of origin and flavour is known as terroir. It’s a notion of provenance that’s increasingly popular with producers of chocolate, rum, and olive oil. Greek EVOO is generally characterised as a little softer than Spanish or Italian – though, of course, individual terroirs will vary.

Tastes like:

More underripe banana and cool grass, accompanied here by herbal hints of parsley and tomato stalks. It’s incredible clean and bright overall with a nice bitterness said to come from the early-harvested olives. There’s a good balance of fresh green notes and mild pepper as well as a pleasant minerality.

The verdict:

It’s fresh and characterful without being too challenging. A great topper for a tomato salad with a little Sherry vinegar, fresh oregano, and sea salt. You could also add a few drops to the surface of your gin Martini for extra zip as they do at East London cocktail barTayēr + Elementary.

9/10

Extra Virgin Olive Oil Roi Cultivar Ogliarola-Taggiasca, Italy – best for pesto

(250ml, £7.50, Roi)

Hailing from the Valle Argentina in Genoa – just a short drive from the French Riviera – this heavyweight EVOO is brought to you by the Roi family who’ve been plying their craft there for more than a century. It’s imported to the UK by Eataly, the multi-national group devoted to extending Italy’s unique brand of culinary soft power and generally encouraging us to live la dolce vita.

Tastes like:

Before you even taste this, the hazy yellow colour and prickle of heat in your nose tells you this is big. It’s incredibly thick on the palate with herbal teas, allspice, grapes and gooseberries leading to fresh butter and phenolic bitterness.

The Verdict:

Really very good. Those intense phenols are not going to be for everyone but then neither is blue cheese or anchovies. You’d happily throw this on some bitter leaves, heap it over pasta, or just plain drink a little glass of it. However, we are in Liguria, so perhaps the best thing you could do would be use it as a base for pesto with basil, pine nuts, and really good parmesan.

10/10

F&M Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Spain – best for fish or chicken

(100ml, £5.95, Fortnum & Mason)

Another Spanish entry, this one from further west than the first in Extremadura. This is made with a combination of Hojiblanca and Arbequina olives said to be bittersweet and buttery, respectively. The little bottle and conspicuous F&M branding seem to imply that this was created to slip easily into those nice hampers they do but it’s got a good pedigree nonetheless.

Tastes like:

The most herbal entry so far, packed with vine leaves, rosemary, and thyme as well as fruity touches of kiwi and apple mint. It’s not heavy but it does leave a nice prickle on the palate. Worlds away from the nutty Ascolana and testament to the importance of variety and origin.

The verdict:

If you need something to pack out a hamper or put in a foodie’s stocking at Christmas, this would be perfect. If you’re planning on eating it yourself those woody herbs make it a great way to finish off roasted white fish or chicken. Solid stuff.

7.5/10

Selfridges Selection Artisan Extra Virgin Olive Oil of Tuscany - best for cheese

(£34.99 – 500ml, £XX, Selfridges)

Another big super-Tuscan to close out the tasting, this handsomely-presented number comes in a ceramic container to protect the precious contents. Would make a lovely gift for that special someone in your life who keeps multiple types of salt in the cupboard. If that’s you, then treat yourself.

Made with a traditional local blend of Frantoio, Leccino and Moraiolo olive varieties this promises to be a perfect example of the Tuscan style – unfiltered, hand pressed, and full of life.

Tastes like:

This oil is heavy and creamy – with an enormous note of green olive that sits alongside mint and bitter leaves. A bit of chilli heat announces itself at the end but that bitter green olive character persists for a long time. Overall, it feels wholesome and nourishing – another reminder of EVOO’s health-giving qualities.

The verdict:

Though not as complex as some of the others, this is a perfect example of Italian extra virgin – balanced and satisfying. You could seal this in a vault to preserve the platonic ideal of olive oil for future generations. That generous heaviness makes this a great match for foods of all kinds but intense foods like anchovies and parmesan will really make it sing.

9/10