Olive oil 101

By
Imogen Corke
Added
13 April, 2015

Every cook knows that good quality extra virgin olive oil is a must-have in the kitchen, but do you know how it’s made, or even what to look for when you’re buying it? We sent Cooked writer Imogen Corke on a trip to the Belazu olives groves in Spain to find out.

Arbequina: Spain’s orchard fruit

Nestled in the crook of a hill just outside of Barcelona in Catalonia, the groves – what I imagined to be beautiful, knarled trees under azure skies – are in fact miles and miles of ordered rows. Belazu grow Spanish Arbequina olives, a variety that has a high concentration of oil, so mostly used for this purpose, and widely admired for its fruity, aromatic qualities. With such distinctive flavour profiles, it’s best used uncooked – think dressings and drizzles as opposed to pan frying and roasting.

olive oil seville

 

The younger the better

The younger and fresher the olives are when they are picked, the greater depth of flavour they will produce. In Catalonia, the early harvest begins around October, and it is this pure early harvest oil that produces the most desirable flavour, which of course, is the most expensive, too. The harvest normally lasts until January, and as time goes on the olives will produce slightly differently tasting oil. Among large producers, it’s common to blend the oil from all the fruits – as Belazu supplies many London restaurants as well as shops and delis, this puts them firmly in that camp, but the team taste the blends up to one hundred times in a single day to calibrate the flavour and ensure there is no bitterness or contamination from older fruit.

 

Time is everything

The quality of the olive oil depends not only on the olive variety and the care with which it is harvested, but also on the speed in which it is turned into oil. Olive oil is a fat, after all, so time and temperature are natural enemies. As soon as the skin is cracked and oxygen reaches the flesh of the olive, the acidity increases, so the challenge is to process the oil in a fast a time as possible, so it can retain its natural flavour. It also has a shorter shelf life than other varieties, so it’s the kind of oil that’s suited to buying little and often.

olive oil seville
 

Starting the hard way...

I wanted to follow the harvesting process from start to finish using traditional methods, and then to find out what’s changed over the years. Brandishing just an olive comb – a sort of wide, stiff-bristled brush – the hard reality of the old school ways soon became clear. I began brushing the olives from their branches onto the ground, which was covered in netting to catch the fruit. Apparently, this would have taken two people about half an hour to harvest one tree, so, although I won’t reveal how long it took me, it’s safe to say that I wasn’t challenging any records.

 

...then discovering the easier way

Luckily, though, we then moved on to the day-to-day practice; instead of using this manually intensive method, the olives are farmed using mechanical combs, allowing two people to harvest about four trees every half an hour. Still a laborious process, granted, but quartering the time it took previously.




olive oil seville
 

Field to factory

Once the olives were picked, I followed them to the factory. They were then separated from the leaves and stray branches – another step previously done by hand – and dropped through a funnel to the press, where three huge cones of granite, each weighing about a ton, roll over the fruit pressing it into a pulp.

 

Keeping cool

By using these stones the temperature is kept low, so the pulp is not heated at all – raising the temperature too much would destabilise the oil and compromise its flavour. If the oil is being flavoured in some way with citrus or chillies, this is the point at which the additional ingredients would be added.

 

On the up

Once water is added to the pulp the extra virgin olive oil can easily be extracted as the higher density fat rises to the top and waste products will drop to the bottom.Once the job is done, it’s bottled and ready to hit the shelves.
 

The most important thing I learned?

That the sometimes exorbitant-sounding costs of olive oil are worth every penny. And judging by my hours in the groves, they’re well-earned, too. So armed with my new-found knowledge, I’m determined to buy well and make the most of it.

olive oil seville
 
 

The five most important things to know about extra-virgin olive oil

 

Always look for oil stored in a dark bottle or tin, the less exposure the oil has to light, the better it will keep.

The colour of olive oil does not affect the flavour at all, so do not let it cloud your judgement.

Extra virgin olive oil advertised as ‘Early Harvest’ will be the producers top quality oil, the type of olives used affect how well it keeps over time.

If the label has a harvest date, do not buy oil over a year old – the fresher it is, the better.

If you can smell it before buying, do so. The freshness should come through in a fruity scent, with time this smell will wear off.

 

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