Our very good friends Elizabeth and Kasimir Berger have lived in Tuscany for the past 10 years. Elizabeth has worked with wine for the whole of her career and, since living in Italy, has applied her knowledge of Italian terroir to olive oil. By candlelight, they run a small business called Frantoi that seeks out the finest extra virgin olive oils in Italy. We asked Elizabeth to share her insights on all things olive oil.
Why should people who enjoy fine wine take an interest in olive oil?
Olives, rather like grapes, grow best in certain environments. There are over 800 different cultivars in Italy alone and each region has its own ‘indigenous’ varieties. Similar to wine, olive oil is made from different cultivars that have unique flavour characteristics ranging from the delicate, sweet Taggiasca from Liguria to the decisive, peppery Coratina in Puglia. So, just as you are unlikely to pair a robust Syrah with a lettuce-based salad, there is also the right olive oil for the right dish. Many people who love fine wine are yet to discover real extra virgin olive oil. Tuscany is a great place to start because the best oils from this region are extremely distinctive and work particularly well with autumn and winter ingredients.
A lot has been said about the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil? What are they?
Study after study has shown that extra virgin olive oil is immensely good for you. Here are a few reasons why.
- EVOO is a great source of healthy fats and antioxidants. We need some sort of fat in our diet, because it’s one of the key elements that satisfies us, but we want that to be a good fat and extra virgin olive oil is without question the best for this. Packed full of antioxidants, it contributes to your daily health in a totally natural way.
- EVOO can help reduce the risk of heart disease and protect against stokes as well as reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. You can find out specific details about the medical benefits either by following Dr Simon Poole @thetasteofthemed or via the Olive Wellness Institute (https://olivewellnessinstitute.org/).
- EVOO is the best cooking oil because it has a high heat tolerance of 207°C, which means it can withstand pretty much all home cooking requirements. Surprisingly, sunflower oil, coconut oil, canola/rapeseed oil, and regular olive oil all have much lower heat tolerances.
- EVOO is a natural anti-inflammatory. Thanks to the polyphenol oleocanthal, which is in abundance in certain olive cultivars (such as Moraiolo), olive oil has the same effect as the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, ibuprofen. It also aids digestion and is great for your skin, hair and nails.
- EVOO raises the nutritional value of vegetables. As the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil, especially in the months immediately after it has been pressed, is a true superfood and therefore protects you through the winter months.
You talk about putting the seasonality back in to olive oil. What do you mean?
For many people, olive oil is a monthly addition to the general shopping list, rather like washing powder. It’s easy not to think about the origin, when the oil is harvested, or the journey it has been on before it arrives in your kitchen. Living in Italy, where olive oil is not only an essential part of the diet but also of the agricultural and cultural landscape, these matters are harder to ignore.
Olives reach maturity in the autumn and EVOO is freshly pressed juice, with no added preservatives. Unlike fine wine, it doesn’t improve with age. When it has just been pressed, it has very high concentrations of polyphenols, it also has its brightest, pepperiest flavours, which as it turns out are extremely well-suited to winter ingredients such as pasta, root vegetables, pulses, brassicas and other winter vegetables. As we move into the spring, the flavours and potency of the olive oil drop back a bit, allowing the bright flavours of spring vegetables to shine through and then as we roll into summer, the flavours of EVOO drop back further, allowing the delicate summer ingredients to take centre stage.
How would you define a good Tuscan olive oil?
Many great Tuscan olive oils are a blend. Rather like wine, the idea of a blend is that it should be greater than the sum of its parts. So, the classic Tuscan blend will typically include three or four cultivars including, for example, the wonderfully classic Frantoio, the more delicate Leccino and the majestic Moraiolo. In terms of flavour, you can expect bold, decisive aromas including artichoke and green bean as well as a good level of peppery spice.
What is the best way to enjoy Montecalvi Extra Virgin Olive Oil at this time of the year?
The delicious oil from Montecalvi would be particularly good over a rich ragu, with a wide variety of mushroom dishes or over a winter soup.