The olive has an interesting history. Its fruit can be used as an oil for cooking, a condiment, a cosmetic, a medicine and a fuel. The tree is also a thing of legend: an olive branch can indicate the end of disaster, be a sign of victory or denote peace. And, according to the book Olive Oils in 21st Century Gastronomy, written by the Royal Academy of Gastronomy, extra virgin olive oil can be compared to wine - they both have distinctive tastes depending on the variety, the terroir and how it is processed.
Figures from the International Olive Council show that European production of olive oil will be in excess of 1.9 million tonnes in 2016/17, and that the UK is estimated to consume 60,000 tonnes of it. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in Europe, generating 1.3 million tonnes for the same period.
Classifications are strict and only the oil extracted from the first pressing of the fruit can be called extra virgin or virgin. 'Olive oil' is a blend of refined olive oil and extra virgin oil and pomace oil is extracted from the second pressing.
Lampante virgin olive oil mostly has industrial uses. Extra virgin olive oils have the highest concentration of the fruit and contain monounsaturated (oleic) acid and polyunsaturated (linoleic) acid, as well as antioxidants and vitamins E and K.
Graham Stoodley, category manager for dell'ami and head of development at Cheese Cellar at Harvey and Brockless, says: "I'd like to explain the blindingly obvious - extra virgin olive oil is freshly squeezed juice from olives.
Olives are 'drupes' - a stone fruit that is in the same family as plums and apricots.
"Extra virgin oil is minimally processed, so time is vitally important. Good olive oils are made carefully, but quickly. Olives are picked and milled within a few hours, so the fruit is fresh and undamaged. This is why acidity is measured so closely; in olive oil the acidity increases as the quality decreases. The legal limit for extra virgin oil is 0.8%, but a good oil can be much lower than that," he adds.
In addition to the levels of acidity, it's the subtle differences in the varieties of the olives that affect how and when to use a particular oil. Four of the most widely used Spanish varieties are Arbequina, Cornicabra, Hojiblanca and Picual. Monika Linton, founder of food supplier Brindisa, says she was told by an oil producer that olive oil is "an investment in health, a pleasure for the senses, a feast for the palate and balm for the soul".
"It is quintessential to the Spanish kitchen," she says. "It is vital for marinating, cooking and drizzling on breads, cured meats, cheeses, roasted vegetables, grilled fish, salads and soups. It is essential to aÁ¯oli and increasingly popular in sweet dishes, especially combined with red fruits or can be much lower than that," he adds.
In addition to the levels of acidity, it's the subtle differences in the varieties of the lives that affect how and when to use a particular oil. Four of the most widely used Spanish varieties are Arbequina, Cornicabra, Hojiblanca and Picual.
Monika Linton, founder of food supplier Brindisa, says she was told by an oil producer that olive oil is "an investment in health, a pleasure for the senses, a feast for the palate and balm for the soul". "It is quintessential to the Spanish kitchen," she says. "It is vital for marinating, cooking and drizzling on breads, cured meats, cheeses, roasted vegetables, grilled fish, salads and soups. It is essential to aÁ¯oli and increasingly popular in sweet dishes, especially combined with red fruits or family's estate.
"We have been analysing the molecular structure of our Arbequina and Picual oils and matching them with a database of over 1,300 foods and drinks. We have selected those with common aromatic components to create revolutionary pairings. This has proven a source of creative inspiration and the world's top chefs are embracing it."
It seems that caviar, white chocolate, bananas and strawberries work with Arbequino, and sardines, soya beans, cardamom, avocados and oysters complement Picual.
If further proof were needed of the pairing opportunities, chef Gordon Ramsay's three-month Olive Grove Pop-Up comes to his Union Street Café in Southwark, south London this month. It promises to celebrate one ingredient - the olive. Davide Gagliazzo, bar manager at Union Street Café, has joined forces with Martini to create an experimental bar menu, where each cocktail features olive oil, served alongside a bar menu from head chef Davide Degiovanni.
The two oils featured in the cocktails are Coratina, a full-bodied, fruity and spicy oil, and Leccino, which is a lighter, golden-green oil. The menu includes the Olive Sour with Martini Ambrato, olive oil, Bombay Sapphire gin and egg white; and the Cioccoliato with Bacardi, Martini Dry, olive oil, chocolate liqueur and mint.
"The cocktails I have created in partnership with Martini celebrate the diversity of the humble olive," says Gagliazzo. "The two types of olive oil have unique characteristics that work brilliantly in the final creations, adding both a silky texture and complexity."
Stoodley says that what keeps olive oils in his kitchen is the taste. "The healthy stuff in olive oil is just the organic cherry on the gluten-free cake. The versatile Arbequina - along with a little sea salt - gives a startling new dimension to a dark chocolate ganache; whereas a robust Picual, like salt and chilli, opens up your taste buds to take in more of every flavour. A little good olive oil just makes everything better."
Spanish olive varieties
The Arbequina olive is characteristic of Catalonia and takes its name from the town of Arbeca. It produces a sweet oil with an aroma of apples, bananas and almonds.
The Cornicabra olive is oval-shaped with a small horn on one side, which gives it its name: cornicabra, meaning 'the goat's horn'. Its oil is highly aromatic and fruity, with notes of apple.
Hojiblanca olives are found in Malaga, Cordoba, Granada and Seville. The name refers to the white tinge of the tree's leaves. The sweet oil has the taste and aroma of freshly cut grass and artichoke, with a slight bitterness and a peppery finish.
Picual is the most abundant variety of olive, both in Spain and across the world. It's a darker-coloured olive with a pointed tip, valued for its high stability and resistance to oxidation, making it perfect for cooking with at high temperatures or for preserving. The oil is full-bodied and fruity with a peppery taste.
•Harvey & Brockless has launched two new Dell'Ami premium extra virgin olive oils with 0.3% acidity. The oils are packed in one-litre tins and are made from olives grown and milled in Cordoba in Spain. The early harvest Arbequina is a rich, golden oil with flavours of green apple, artichoke and creamy avocado, perfect for delicate dishes, such as a dressing a creamy burrata. The robust and intense Picual is a green, grassy oil that coats the mouth with flavours of green banana, aubergine and bitter herbs. It would work well drizzled onto a soup or as a finishing oil on chargrilled seafood or steaks.
•The olives in Brindisa's oils are harvested from groves near Mendavia in Navarre in Spain. Its North & South extra virgin olive oil is a blend of Picual and Arbequina olives with spicy tomato leaf notes and would be great for cooking. Its Arbequina oil has grassy notes accentuated by under-ripe fruit and a hint of pepper, ideal for dressings or the table.
•Castillo de Canena has a range of premium oils, including a Family Reserve range, Early Royal, a Biodynamic Picual and an Arbequino Oil Delicately Smoked. The company also has a collection of Arbequina & Co oils, which combine 95%
Arbequina oil with 5% essential oils from flowers, plants and fruits, such as thyme, orange blossom, cinnamon and bergamot.
•Continental Quattro Stagioni stocks Colavita olive oils, including Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil Selezione Italiana, an everyday oil with a delicate and fruity flavour.
•The Artisan Olive Oil Company supplies olive oil marmalade made by Oro Bailen. It is made using 50% Picual olives, xanthan gum and sugar to make an olive oil jelly, which can be spread on toast or crackers. The company also produces Picual olive oil pearls - pearls made of oil encased in a thin skin, which will 'pop' in the mouth.
Harvey & Brockless www.harveyandbrockless.co.uk
Castillo de Canena www.castillodecanena.com/en
available via www.infusions4chefs.co.uk
Continental Quattro Stagioni www.continental-food.co.uk
Extra Virgin Alliance www.extravirginalliance.org
The Olive Oil Source www.oliveoilsource.com
The Artisan Olive Oil Company www.artisanoliveoilcompany.com