What makes a Virgin Extra Virgin

Just getting ready to go off to the Kerrygold Litfest at Ballymaloe next weekend – where they’ve asked me to wax lyrical and scandalous on olive oil – ‘What makes a Virgin Extra Virgin’…..so I’ve been looking through some of the great food writers on what they have to say about olive oil.

Marcella Hazan writing in the 1970s (Classic Italian Cookbooks) is very simple about it: ‘Think of olive oil as the juice of a fruit. It should have the colour, fragrance and, above all, taste of the olive it comes from…… Where olive oil is part of the flavour of the dish, obviously the poorer the oil, the poorer will be the dish.

And the newest book on the shelf, Orietta Gianjorio’s ‘A Guide to Olive Oil and Olive Oil Tasting’ (which I found on Amazon) is just THE best book so far on how to understand the magical differences of olive oils, how to choose them judiciously, how to use the tremendous range of flavours with all kinds of ingredients.

“Orietta, scegli l’olio per condire l’insalata” (Orieta, choose the oils to dress the salad). Since I was little, pairing the right olive oil with our meals was my job.”

Orietta says she has almost more bottles of different olive oils in her kitchen (extra virgin of course) than she has dresses – to go with the different dishes: and it occurs to me that the different qualities of oils from the local variety of olives must surely have helped develop different cooking styles? No point in using the sweet and light oils from Liguria (where they have a tremendous repertoire of fish dishes) in a heavy Greek Stifado. Or, vice versa, heavy peppery Kalamata with a salad of baby leaves.

It’s very sad that so few of our food writers seem to understand - and so ignore - that there are SO many different possibilities of taste and consistency when they list plain ‘olive oil’ in their recipes. They’ll specify using all kinds of exotica they’ve just discovered – and then ‘olive oil’……..(which, technically, is the description for the disgusting product that’s extracted with chemicals from the waste left after milling the fruit….).

One of them – reckoned to be a sort of national food hero - even suggested that it didn’t matter WHAT olive oil - any old one would do.

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