Recently I was sent some olive oils to taste and I must say that I found the experience really interesting. I do not know a huge amount about olive oil, but it is a fascinating subject and has much in common with wine – and chocolate, coffee, tea and I expect many other things that make life better.
The similarities of course are that olive oil, like wine, is an agricultural product. Therefore where the olives grow has an effect on the finished oil. The type of olives used do too, just like different grape varieties, cocoa beans or coffee beans. Apparently there are more than a thousand olive varieties, all of which have something interesting to offer and their own unique flavour. Of course, just as with wine, how the oil is made will also have an influence on the finished result, whether it is small batch or made on an industrial scale for instance.
The oils that I was sent were made by a big Italian olive oil producer called Basso Fedele e Figli. They are based in Campania, San Michele di Serino just outside Avellino – so very much wine country, and have been making oil since 1904. Originally it was small scale production from olive trees in the local area, but nowadays they source olives from across southern Italy.
Much like wine producers often seek to produce small parcels of something more interesting, this led them to get more ambitious, so they put together a small range of premium quality Extra Virgin Olive Oils from different places or sometimes specific olive varieties. The range is named after the owner of the company Sabino Basso and is beautifully packaged in a Kolio style bottle.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the highest grade of olive oil and is made by simply crushing olives, no solvents or high temperatures are allowed. It is supposed to be bright, fresh and vivacious and for me Extra Virgin Olive Oil seems very healthy, light and appetising.
This was the most intense of the oils and made a statement as soon as I poured it. It looked rich, with an almost egg-yolk yellow colour and gave off aromas of white pepper, ginger and clove together with truffle and mushroom notes.
The palate was spicy and vibrant with all those aromas following through, especially the truffle and ginger, but also grassy, vegetal flavours – in my mind it reminded me of artichoke leaves – and bitter almonds too.
This oil come from the area around Bari in Puglia and is made from Coratina olives, which are famous for their spicy flavours and for being particularly high in antioxidants.
Made from a blend of Biancolilla olives, grown in southwestern Sicily, and Cerasuola olives grown near Sciacca, near Donnafugata, on Sicily’s south coast. Cerasuola is a term that I come across quite a lot in wine. It means cherry red and is often used to describe a rosé wine in Italy – like Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, or sometimes even a red wine like Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the only DOCG wine on Sicily.
The colour was very light and lemony and the oil smelt fresh, floral and grassy with some peppery notes, vegetal aromas and even some of that lovely, slightly spicy, aromatic tomato and tomato stem smell. The texture was delicately creamy with a flavour of artichoke hearts and tomato stems as well as a nice peppery flavour that wasn’t too powerful. It was lovely drizzled on burrata and bresaola.
I loved all these oils, but perhaps this was my favourite and I think I can work out why. I know the wines from the Sorrento Peninsula in Campania and they are some of my favourite wines in Italy – the whites in particular are incredible. I presume that same dramatically terraced landscape that cascades down the hillsides to the sea and produces superb grapes and lemons, for limoncello, also produces perfect olives.
The variety for this oil is Minucciola and it is an altogether more restrained style than the Bari oil. The colour is bright and lemony and it smells creamy with light black pepper, hay, grass and delicate fresh cheese. The flavour is intriguing with some fresh cheese, basil, rosemary and thyme flavours as well as Sichuan pepper.
So if you fancy experimenting with new flavours and combinations, try some different olive oils. There are so many different styles, they can be really surprising, great fun and above all delicious. You don’t have to use it in the cooking either, olive oil makes a great condiment. A little drizzle of olive oil can make an astonishing amount of difference to a dish.