Olive oil is sometimes called Spain’s liquid gold – a reference not only to its glorious golden hue but also because Spain is the world’s number one olive oil producer, with Andalucia responsible for 80% of its entire oil production. Olive groves thrive on its sun-kissed slopes and just like fine wine, the flavour, colour and consistency of each harvest varies according to the olive type, its ripeness and growing conditions, as well as how it is picked, handled and milled. So what makes olive oil ‘extra virgin’?
Once harvested, olives must be milled as soon as possible to retain their true flavour and colour. Initially, the olives are washed and ground into a paste, then pressed to extract the oil from the fruit. This first-extraction, cold-pressed oil is classed as extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) if the acidity is below 0.8%. It should also be produced solely by mechanical means (that is: without the adulteration of any chemicals) and be kept at temperatures under 30C. Extra Virgin is the highest grade of olive oil available and tastes superb drizzled over salads, fish and vegetables. But because high temperatures degrade its pure flavour, we don’t recommended cooking with extra virgin oil. And it’s best stored in a cool cupboard too – not next to a hot stove or sunny window-sill!
The slightly less refined virgin olive oil is allowed an acidity of up to 2% by regulators. It is usually made from riper olives but the flavour is still good. Virgin oil can be an acceptable and economic alternative to its expensive, extra-virgin sibling.
Further down the culinary scale, ordinary olive oil is often a mixture of virgin oil and refined olive oil. It’s a great choice for frying and cooking with as it has very little flavour but a high smoke point (the temperature at which oil starts smoking). It’s worth having a bottle of such oil to cook with and preserve your delicious extra virgin olive oil for those meals where you really want to enjoy the full fruity flavour of the olive.
And unlike many foods that titillate our taste buds, extra virgin olive oil not only tastes glorious but its unique flavour is matched by a string of health benefits, making it a key ingredient in a Mediterranean diet.