Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Well Oiled

Olive oil is an absolute must for every galley. Top quality supplies are usually easy to find, especially if you’re working in the Mediterranean, and as the Med season will soon be upon us, now’s the time to really get to grips with this versatile liquid. Olive oil has been used worldwide for thousands of years, and has many uses. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and even the Incas used it as fuel for their lamps as well as for the cooking and preservation of foodstuffs.

Of course, it’s just as popular today, helped by boffins who have scientifically proven its anti-oxidant and anti-ageing properties, as well as its ability to lower cholesterol. As well as a health food, it’s found in soaps, skin cream and medical lotions. On occasion I’ve used it as an alternative to shaving cream! It is also said to be an excellent cure for snoring: take a good tablespoon before sleeping and it will lubricate your throat, giving you and your partner a restful sleep. It also contains an anti-inflammatory ingredient and has been proven to act as a natural pain reliever.

Olive oil is produced around most of the Mediterranean basin, with Italy, Greece, France, Spain, Israel and Croatia all producing very high standards of oil. It is also produced in Australia and New Zealand as well as South America. Just as with wine, the flavours of each harvest differ greatly, depending on the climate and soil of each particular region. Umbria in Italy is said to produce the highest quality.

The choice of oil, especially in producing countries, is huge. It can be daunting as to which to buy for particular uses, so I’ve compiled a simple guide to help. Essentially, oil is graded according to its acidity: the lower the level, the more aromatic – and refined – it will be.

When you go to the supermarket, especially in Spain and Italy, you’ll find olive oil has its own aisle designated to it. Take time to browse this aisle and get to know what’s on offer. Pay attention to the massive variations in price too: just like the wine aisle this does help to indicate its quality. Just as you shouldn’t ever use a cheap, poor quality wine to cook with, never fall for using a cheap, low grade oil to cook with, as the resulting flavour will be impaired.

You’ll often find it available in plastic bottles as well as glass: the former is obviously a sensible choice if you’re working on a sail yacht. Always store your oil in a cool, dark place: air, heat and light will cause the oil to turn rancid. In hot weather it can be stored in a refrigerator: you’ll find it’ll go cloudy and may even solidify, but it will turn clear again at room temperature. Some people in the Mediterranean chill their oil so that it can be spread onto bread. Should you buy your oil in bulk, transfer it into smaller containers.


Cold-Pressed Extra Virgin
The finest oil, with only 1%
maximum acidity. This is best
served on its own with some
fresh bread to dip it in, before
and during dinner.

Extra Virgin
Good to use in dressings,
but also suitable to serve on
its own.

Fine Virgin
Made with slightly riper olives
than those used for extra virgin,
with a maximum acidity of
1.5%. Use in dressings where
you are adding other flavours.

A good all-round cooking oil,
with a maximum acidity of 3%.
Can be used for frying meat or
fish. Blend it with other oils,
such as corn or sunflower, for
a more neutral flavour. Try not
to heat it too much as it will
turn slightly bitter.

Mild (Suave, Delicante)
Great for cooking chicken, veal,
pork or fish.

Strong (Fuerte, Forte)
Use for cooking dark meat
or game.

Pictured is a bottle of home-made chilli oil – ideal for pouring
on pizzas.
To make:
>Wash an attractive glass bottle – a Galliano bottle makes
a stunning choice;
>Sterilise it by heating it in the oven, which also makes sure
it’s completely dry;
>Throw in a handful of dried chillies, some dried herbs and
maybe a few coriander seeds;
>Heat some mild olive oil to 90oC and pour into the bottle;
>Leave for about a week to properly infuse and pick up some
heat from the chillies.

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