Up until the 1950s the British used olive oil as a laxative, a hair restorer, lamp fuel or, in the case of an unfortunate uncle of mine, an infant body rub. The one thing we couldn’t bring ourselves to do was eat it. But, with the help of Elizabeth David and, later, the rapidly expanding supermarkets, we learnt to “drizzle” the extra virgin on just about everything.
Its worldwide popularity has led to an olive oil diaspora – our tasting included single-estate oils from California, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand as well as nine Mediterranean countries. We had some specialist help from an olive oil expert and author, Judy Ridgway, in sourcing distinctive samples from a bewildering choice of “designer” oils. All were extra virgin, which means the fruit is pressed carefully to yield oil with very low acidity. Some were also cold-pressed and unfiltered in an attempt to preserve as much of their flavour and as many of their nutrients as possible.
Taste, as this column is happy to admit, is individual, not to say idiosyncratic. So we recruited a range of native Mediterranean participants: the Greek Magnate (GM), the Lebanese Gastronaut (LG) and the Iberian Exile (IE).
All attempts at including the French and Italians failed, which meant the Gluttonous Pig (GP) and the Discerning Litigator (DL) were required to complete the panel. The latter entered oil from her own Italian grove and the Greek Magnate threw in the extra virgin from his island estate. With such personal interests a strictly blind tasting was enforced. The stakes were high and the sparks flew.
A gulf opened up immediately between the Greek Magnate and the rest. What he loved, everyone else didn’t. Zaytoun is a Palestinian oil: “wonderfully strong, like a time bomb”(GM); “odd taste of paint” (GP); “bitter” (IE); “yuck” (LG). Botrys comes from Lebanon: “you can taste the olives!” (GM); “too strong” (IE). Then we came to the Greek Magnate’s own oil, its identity concealed: “good flavour, pure” (GM); “too peppery” (LG); “on its own? No thank you” (GP).
And what the Greek Magnate detested, everyone else admired. De Medici is Californian: “bland, little flavour” (GM); “very tasty” (IE). In this tit for tat the Discerning Litigator’s Italian oil suffered a similar fate. It was dismissed as “a touch of the Berlusconi’s” by GM, which we took to mean dubious and ersatz. The same sample was judged somewhat differently by the others: “my favourite – extremely subtle” (LG); “well balanced with strong aftertaste” (DL).
What this spat illustrates nicely is that oils from the eastern Med are pungent and strongly aromatic. Further west, oils such as the Italian ones are gentler. Which you like may depend on your mood, the robustness of your palate or your cultural background. But by the end of the tasting reason and diplomacy had reasserted themselves – our top three oils covered both styles and yet gained acceptance from us all.
The French oils performed well, as did the Moroccan and Jordanian, but the panel’s runners-up came from Italy and South America. Third was Seggiano from the bleak Val d’Orcia in Tuscany: “delicious” (IE); “peppery” (GM); “another subtle flavour” (LG). Second came Olave from Chile, derived from imported Italian olive trees: “grassy and herby as a spring meadow” (GP); “light and easy” (GM). And, much to the Greek Magnate’s delight, our winner was Iliada from Greece. It’s a dark green oil made from early harvested berries: “strong – the real thing!” (GM); “good flavour” (LG); “sea-green incorruptible” (GP).
On the back of this national triumph for Greece, GM reminded us how Thucydides had described the wholesale felling of olive trees during the Peloponnesian wars as a way for the Athenians and Spartans to damage each other’s economies. But we suspected that, today, GM had someone else’s trees in mind, further west across the Mediterranean sea.
1. Iliada Special Early Harvest Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Greece, 2010 harvest, 500ml, £5, exclusive to Sainsbury’s; www.sainsburys.co.uk
2. Olave Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Chile, 2010 harvest, 500ml $17.99; www.olave.cl. Soon to be made available in the UK; contact Nick Richards on 01672 871104 for details
3. Seggiano Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Italy, 2010 harvest, 500ml, approx £11.95; www.seggiano.co.uk. Stockists include Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason, Harvey Nicols, House of Fraser, Wholefoods, Planet Organic and John Lewis Foodhalls