Wine lovers know all about the major grape varieties that go into their favourite wines but olive oil enthusiasts are not usually so knowledgeable. Yet the different olive varieties, like grapes, give quite different taste and flavour characteristics to their end products and contribute to the diversity of the olive oil world. Accordingly, I am starting a new series of posts on what to expect from what. I hope it will help to answer that perennial question “what will it taste like?” and make choosing oils for the table and the kitchen that bit easier.
Unfortunately, not all olive oils label specifically state the varietals used but there are clues to what they might be in the details of the producer and the region in which the groves are based. This will not help you with most branded and supermarket oils as they are packed from blends of oils bought on the international commodity market and will probably be made up of a mix of varieties. But, if you can afford it, you will be much better off buying premium oils with their much more interesting flavour profiles and health benefits.
As Spain produces far more olive oil than any other country I shall start with one of the most widespread Spanish varieties – Picual. This variety is found all over Southern Spain, but particularly in Jaen in Andalucia. Here you can drive for days at a time seeing only olive trees and the craggy tops of the Sierras. Picual ihas not been planted in very many other European countries but it has found its way to many of the new producing areas, particularly in the Southern hemisphere. It pops up in Chile, Peru and Uruguay and is widely planted in Australia and New Zealand. It may even be planted in China and the Far East!
Originating in Jaen Picual is by far the dominant variety in the region. The oil is not perhaps for the faint hearted as it is always pretty robust with strong herby tones, sometimes with a touch of catmint, and a good deal of bitterness and pepper. Because of this it has not always been fully appreciated outside of Spain. Today the best Picual oils show all kinds of interesting flavour characteristics including mixed salad leaves with rocket, kale and mustard leaf, tomatoes on the vine and bitter almonds. The flavours of many local dishes are equally strong and Picual oils make a great match for them. In other parts of Andalucia, oil from Picual olives is blended with that from Picudo and Hojiblanca to give “back bone” to wonderfully lush fruity oils.
Local recipes using Picual oils
Jaen White Garlic Soup
This is a traditional recipe for a great summer soup from Melgarejo, a family owned mill with extensive groves near Jaen.
Quantities serve 4
- Cold water
- 100g white breadcrumbs
- 200g peeled and ground almonds
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tablespoons vinegar
- 200ml Picual extra virgin olive oil
Pour water over the crumbs and leave to stand for a short while. Squeeze dry.
Place the almonds with cloves in a food processor and process quickly. Add the breadcrumbs, vinegar and salt and process again.
Gradually add the oil, a little at a time, and whip together. At the end add water slowly to make a fine cream. Serve very cold.
Fried Courgettes with Lemons
The recipe for this unusual starter was given to me when I was visiting the Olivar de Segura co-operative in the Sierra de Segura region of Jaen. This is one of the largest secondary olive oil co-operatives in Andalucia. It serves around 4,500 farmers through 14 primary cooperatives pressing olives locally, storing, packaging and marketing their oil. It can itself process up to 500,000 kilos of olives a day. It produces both premium and everyday extra virgin oil. This recipe uses the co-operative’s flagship oil, Senorio de Segura, which is pressed exclusively from local Picual olives.
The recipe suggests salting the courgettes lightly before cooking to get rid of some of the excess moisture in the vegetable. However, if you are in a hurry you can omit this stage but you may need to fry the courgettes for a little longer to get a good colour.
These quantities serve four to six people.
- 500g medium to small courgettes
- 2 large skinned lemons
- 100ml Senorio de Segura extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Wash the courgettes and slice fairly thinly on the bias. Sprinkle with salt and place in a colander. Leave to stand for 1 hour. Rinse well and dry completely.
Fry in batches in hot shallow olive oil until golden brown, turning once. Place on a flat serving dish.
slice the lemons very thinly. Add to the hot oil and fry, turning once. The lemons will brown and the oil will thicken to a delicious sauce.
Add the cooked lemons to the courgettes with the cooking liquor. Leave to stand while they cool to room temperature.
Served sprinkled with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Other first-class oils from the Jaen region available in the UK include: