Olive Oil – It makes all the difference

Peter Morrell has been learning about how olive oil can dramatically change the flavour of food

I was recently at one of the best Spanish restaurants in London, Iberica in Great Portland Street. The purpose of the visit was to taste a number of different olive oils and then concentrate on three and compare how they influenced the taste of food.

The session was hosted by Interprofessional Olive Oil who are the professional body representing the olive oil industry in Spain. Our tutor was their very knowledgeable Director of the organisation, Teresa Perez.

We started by learning how to taste olive oil, which is traditionally done by placing a glass disk on the top of an opaque blue glass. The reason the glass is opaque is to stop the taster being influenced by the colour of the oil.

The oil is then warmed in the palm of the hand before being sniffed, rather like sampling wine. Then a small sip is taken to taste what it is like in the mouth.

We sampled a number of varieties but the three we concentrated on were, in order of ‘strength’ or intensity, Arbequina, Hojiblanca and Picual.

The Arbequina had a mild fruity flavour with hints of banana and avocado. The Hojiblanca had a more grassy aroma with an intense and slightly bitter aftertaste. The final variety the Picual was the strongest with a combined flavour of both spice and fruit with a definite bite at the back of the throat in the aftertaste.

It was then time to taste these oils with food. First up was a gazpacho of red berries, beetroot and anchovies. It came in three small glasses, we poured a little of each oil on the top of the soup and then tasted them in turn.

The interplay of tastes between the oil and the soup was remarkable, with each oil bringing out different flavours in the gazpacho.

The next dish was a salad of Urgell cheese with pinenuts and pear, again each dish was dressed with the three oils and again the results were amazing with a totally different sensation from each dressing.

The final taste test was with my favourite Spanish dish, Galician octopus with potatoes and vinegar.  The olive oils were drizzled over dish on three separate plates. The varying strengths of the oil seemed to stimulate the taste buds to bring out different facets of the octopus.

In all this was a fascinating experience and interestingly, in discussions with fellow tasters at the end of the session, although there was a broad consensus about which oil suited each dish the best it was by no means unanimous.  So there is no right answer, like all food it is down to personal taste and preference.

Olives are grown throughout Spain, and all sorts of factors determine the character of the oil that they produce. These factors, such as how ripe the olives are and how hot the weather, changes the taste and sensation in the mouth.

As a general rule the first cold pressing of the olives produces the best quality oil with the most flavour, this is the extra virgin oil that you see in the shops. Then, as the olives are processed more, the quality of the oil decreases and has less flavour.

The extra virgin oil is best used raw for dressings and when a recipe calls for olive oil to be mixed into a dish. The lower quality oils are better used for frying and roasting.

Most oils bought in a supermarket are blended, but there is an increasing trend for olive oil to be from a single estate or be produced from a single type of olive, like the oils we sampled. For example, if you are want a very spicy taste then look out for the word Picual on the label of the bottle or for a milder oil then choose Arbequina

Try experimenting with your own dishes and varieties of oil, you will find it a surprising and enjoyable taste adventure.

For more information about olive oil and for recipes visit www.oliveoilsfromeurope.com