Great excitement at the cookery school today, we’ve just got our first consignment of the new season’s olive oil from Greece.
Mani extra virgin olive oil is a rich unctuous green oil with sweet, spicy, grassy flavours.
Charles Byrne who imports Mani into Ireland came to explain the fascinating story behind the production of this extra virgin olive oil which has lured me since I first tasted it in Greece about ten years ago
Mani oil is produced from organically grown Koroneiki olives on the Mani peninsula in the Western Peleponnese area. The olives are grown by peasant farmers in numerous small groves in a co-operative venture organised by Austrian Fritz Bläuel and his wife Burgi. This gentle Buddhist couple, aged-hippies like myself, started out on the hippy trail to India many moons ago. When they got as far as the Mani peninsula they paused in this remote area to meditate and commune with nature. When they met the local farmers, ate the food, helped to pick the olives, tasted the freshly pressed oil, they were “blown away” by the quality and flavour and were determined to bring their fine local oil to a wider audience. A long battle ensued with the Greek Government and the chemical companies, who initially put many obstacles in the way of growing organically.
The olive groves were sprayed from the air against the expressed wishes of the farmers but eventually the Greek government intervened when tour companies began registering complaints that tourists on the beaches all over Greece were complaining about the side effects from the spray drift.
From then on the co-op of olive growers became totally organic and now Mani is the third largest exporter of branded olive oil in Greece and are responsible for 90% of organic production of all Greek olive oil.
Despite their success they haven’t forgotten their ethos – every year the mill closes for a couple of weeks, is decorated with Tibetan prayer flags and is metamorphosed into a Meditation Hall.
Much of the oil is still pressed by crushing the olives with ancient millstones in the traditional way. Some farmers have however changed over to continuous centrifugal production, although my preference is for olive oil produced in the truly traditional way. Seems light years away from my childhood when olive oil was solely for ear aches or for easing ‘a crick in the neck’.
My first experiment with olive oil for mayonnaise proved totally disastrous, despite Elizabeth David’s promptings in French Provincial Cooking – the oil was rancid which resulted in a strong, bitter and altogether nasty mayonnaise.
Nowadays, I keep 3 or 4 different types of olive oil for different uses and know of no other product which can so greatly enhance the flavour of food with so little effort. So what should one look out for when choosing an olive oil?. As with wine it’s a matter of taste.
The essential elements of olive oil production have changed little over thousands of years, though the methods themselves and the equipment have been improved and streamlined and in some cases computerised. The olives are picked from September to March depending on the region. Hand picking is still the only way to ensure that the fruit is picked at its optimum ripeness and also to prevent bruising. However hand picking is expensive so other harvesting methods have been developed and research continues in an attempt to mechanise. The hand picker stands on a ladder with a net slung like a hammock below to catch the olives. Poles are sometimes used to
beat the branches. The olives are taken in baskets to a well where they are washed to remove all traces of impurities, they are then ground and the pulp is pressed. Oil which is made by pressing without any other treatment is called virgin oil. The modern method is to squeeze the pulp under hydraulic pressure and separate the oil with a centrifuge. The first cold pressed olive oil are virgin oils. They are graded according to acidity in standards laid down by the International Olive Oil Council.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes in two qualities -
Single Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil - This cold pressed oil with no more than 1% oleic acid, is the very best you can buy. Use for dipping, salad dressing, or drizzling over soups, pasta, salads or pan-grilled foods.
Branded extra virgin olive oil, the cheaper mass-produced brands need to be treated with more caution – use in everyday cooking.
Virgin Olive Oil - Obtained in the same way as extra virgin but with an acidity of 1.5% - 3% max oleic acid.
Olive Oil or Pure Olive Oil is the lowest grade of olive oil. It consists of a blend of refined olive oil to which virgin olive oil is added to improve the flavour. Use for mayonnaise and salad dressing if you do not enjoy a strong olivey flavour. It is also good for deep frying and cooking at high temperature. It’s smoke and flash point is the same as other vegetable oils but its Vitamin C content allows it to resist breakdown for a longer period.
Olive oil comes in a variety of styles – choose a sweet and gentle oil for fish and mild salads, a more pungent peppery one to dress more gutsy salads, pasta and roast or char-grilled meats.
Olive oil connoisseurs consider the oils of Tuscany in Italy and Provence in France, to be amongst the finest, but I’ve had superb oils from Spain, Greece and even South Africa, where the Morgenser oil from Giulio Bertrand is causing a considerable stir. One does not normally associate South Africa with olive oil but there is an increasing acreage under olive trees, as there is in California, Western Australia, New Zealand, Peru and Argentina. The choice can be bewildering, particularly as olive oil, like wine, has an enormous diversity of flavours. The taste, colour and aroma are dependent on the country of origin, the soil on which the olives are grown, the variety of olive, the method of harvesting and of course the way the olives are pressed. All these factors affect personal taste.
For centuries the nutritional, cosmetic and medicinal benefits of olive oil have been recognised by the people of the Mediterranean. Recent research indicates that a Mediterranean style diet which includes olive oil is very healthy. People in the Mediterranean live longer, are generally healthier and have a lower rate of coronary diseases than in the United States, Great Britain or Ireland.
Extra Virgin Olive oil is monounsaturated and so the consumption of olive oil can actually reduce LDL (Low density Lipoproteins) in the system while preserving the essential HDL (High Density Lipoproteins). Polyunsaturates on the other hand reduce both LDL and HDL. Olive oil has 115 calories per tablespoon exactly the same as other oils
For more information on olive oil and practical advice on what brands to buy, its hard to beat Judy Ridgway’s brilliantly researched book. ‘Best olive oil buys round the world’ published by Gardiner Press – her website address is www.oliveoil.org.uk The website for Mani is www.blauel.gr
All specialist food shops and delis and most supermarkets now stock at least one, and often several extra virgin olive oils. Taste, experiment and enjoy, it may just be the most important oil change of your life!
Homemade Mayonnaise and variations
Mayonnaise is what we call a 'mother sauce' in culinary jargon. In fact it is the 'mother' of all the cold emulsion sauces, so once you can make a Mayonnaise you can make any of the daughter sauces by just adding some extra ingredients.
I know it is very tempting to reach for the jar of 'well known brand' but most people don't seem to be aware that Mayonnaise can be made even with a hand whisk, in under five minutes, and if you use a food processor the technique is still the same but it is made in just a couple of minutes. The great secret is to have all your ingredients at room temperature and to drip the oil very slowly into the egg yolks at the beginning. The quality of your Mayonnaise will depend totally on the quality of your egg yolks, oil and vinegar and it's perfectly possible to make a bland Mayonnaise if you use poor quality ingredients.
2 egg yolks, preferably free range
¼ teaspoon salt
Pinch of English mustard or ¼ teaspoon French mustard
1 dessertspoon White wine vinegar
8 fl ozs (250ml/1 cup) oil (sunflower, arachide or olive oil or a mixture) - We use 6 fl ozs (175ml) arachide oil and 2 fl ozs (50ml) olive oil, alternatively use 7/1
Serve with cold cooked meats, fowl, fish, eggs and vegetables.
Put the egg yolks into a bowl with the mustard, salt and the white wine vinegar (keep the whites to make meringues). Put the oil into a measure. Take a whisk in one hand and the oil in the other and drip the oil onto the egg yolks, drop by drop whisking at the same time. Within a minute you will notice that the mixture is beginning to thicken. When this happens you can add the oil a little faster, but don't get too cheeky or it will suddenly curdle because the egg yolks can only absorb the oil at a certain pace. Taste and add a little more seasoning and vinegar if necessary.
If the Mayonnaise curdles it will suddenly become quite thin, and if left sitting the oil will start to float to the top of the sauce. If this happens you can quite easily rectify the situation by putting another egg yolk or 1-2 tablespoons of boiling water into a clean bowl, then whisk in the curdled Mayonnaise, a half teaspoon at a time until it emulsifies again.
ingredients as above
1-4 clove of garlic, depending on size
2 teaspoons chopped parsley
Crush the garlic and add to the egg yolks just as you start to make the Mayonnaise. Finally add the chopped parsley and taste for seasoning.
Note: Here is a tip for crushing garlic. Put the whole clove of garlic on a board, preferably one that is reserved for garlic and onions. Tap the clove with a flat blade of a chopping knife, to break the skin. Remove the skin and discard. Then sprinkle a few grains of salt onto the clove. Again using the flat blade of the knife, keep pressing the tip of the knife down onto the garlic to form a paste. The salt provides friction and ensures the clove won't shoot off the board!
Pour boiling water over ¾ oz (20g) of basil leaves, count to 3 drain immediately and refresh in cold water. Chop and add to the egg yolks and continue to make the Mayonnaise in the usual way.
Tomato and Basil Mayonnaise
Add 1-2 tablespoons (1-2 American tablespoons + 1-2 teaspoons) of aromatic tomato pureé to the Basil Mayonnaise.
Chilli Basil Mayonnaise
Add a good pinch of chilli powder to the egg yolks when making Garlic Mayonnaise, omit the parsley and add the basil instead. Great with salads and sandwiches.
Add 1-2 teaspoons Ballymaloe tomato relish to the basic mayonnaise. Add ½-1 teaspoon chilli sauce to taste.
Add 1 - 2 tablespoons of Wasabi paste to the eggs instead of mustard.
Roast Red Pepper Mayonnaise
Add 1-2 roast red peppers, seeded and peeled (do not wash)
Purée the red pepper flesh, add purée and juices to the Mayonnaise. Taste and correct seasoning.
Wholegrain Mustard Mayonnaise
Add 1-2 tablespoons wholegrain mustard to the basic mayonnaise.
Use lemon juice instead of vinegar in the basic mayonnaise.
Rick Stein introduced us to this delicious sauce. Add 3 teaspoons Pernod and 2 tablespoons of finely chopped fennel bulb to the basic mayonnaise recipe.