Monday, January 6, 2014

Extra Virgin

Now we all know that olive oil is good for you, but how much olive oil is too much?  Let me start this by saying that we get through a lot of olive oil.  Last year our olive oil consumption topped 40 litres.  I feel the need to justify this use by saying that; it is the only oil we use, I use it as a moisturiser and make olive oil cakes and….well I cannot really justify it further.

But as I read online, olive oil is good for you!  

Peter and I recently went to the olive oil press to purchase this year’s requirements.   The press that we go to is over an hour away and we choose to go here because it’s been recommended and the price of olive oil is 2 euros cheaper here per litre compared to our local press.   

Despite having 15 olive trees we have made the decision not to pick and press our own olive oil.  Our friends as Casa Azul cannot believe we don’t use our own olives, each year they harvest their olives and take them to their local press – their blog on LiquidGold talks through the process.    Having watched the locals harvest their olives it looks like a lot of back breaking work, and quite frankly we can’t be bothered.   Instead we let our neighbours harvest our olives and we go a buy our oil.

The press charges 3.5 euros a litre for olive oil (c grade), 4 euros for the better grade and 5 euros for the top grade stuff.   With the amount we consume we go for the cheaper option!   

It’s not organic, I expect some of these local farmers would put the Syrian government to shame with the amount of spray chemicals they use on their crops.  I cannot work out if it is refined oil, would the local press add chemicals to make the taste better or would simply chucking every olive for 100 mile radius into the press create the right flavour?  The oil ain’t going to win any awards -  and the flavour may not be the most subtle nor refined.    But it’s local, picked and pressed by local people, complete with little old lady dispensing it into cans.   

It got me thinking though, why does some olive oil cost so much in the UK?  Has the Jamie Oliver generation pushed the price high through sheer fancy demand? 

I recall a few years ago attending the ‘frost fair’ of a very nice school in Dulwich.  Amongst the stalls selling hand-painted Christmas baubles and home-crafted earrings was a women selling olive oil from her farmland in Italy.    “Taste it” she says to me, “you can taste the sunshine”, so I tasted it.  “Nice” I said (always articulate and to the point) “tell me about the harvest” I asked.   So she told me it was picked by local villagers, pressed the same day on a cold press, filtered twice and put into bottles by the local people.   “How much is a litre?” I asked…..”£15” she said.     I choked a little on the bread dipped in olive oil and then explained that I had my own olive trees in Portugal and I was unlikely to spend that much on oil since I could get it at a third of the price.  

But I think it is this romantic image of peasants harvesting the oil, it being pressed locally by women wearing black as the sun beats down, set against a backdrop of  green hills which pushes the price up.    I think this romantic notion helps to keep olive oil (certainly extra virgin) a luxury item.   Fact is, here nearly all the women wear black (their husbands are dead you see) and the olives are harvested in December!

There is an annual olive oil completion in New York (who knew?) where Spanish and Greek oils regularly beat oils from Portugal.  These oils come in at over £15 a litre – nice on a salad but wasted anywhere else surely!

The most expensive olive oil in the world is called Lambda and is produced in Greece, cold pressed and bottled by hand.  This little gem will set you back a whopping £35 for 500mls. It’s not on the best of list though!

Hang on, my olive oil for 3.5 euros a litre was cold pressed and ‘bottled’ by hand….so why is some olive oil so expensive – like wine I suppose it comes down to flavour and that is a story for a far better palate than mine!