Olive oil has been a staple of Mediterranean cooking for thousands of years, and it’s still the mainstay in the kitchens of chefs and home cooks all over the world. The green-to-golden liquid has been produced since around 6,000BC; its trees have a place in Greek mythology (the city of Athens was named after the goddess Athena after her gift of an olive tree was deemed more precious to the city than Poseidon’s gift of a salt spring) and are even seen as an international symbol of peace. In short: where would we be without olive oil?
Although the history of olive oil lies in ancient Greece, and while most people drizzling it on dishes might assume the majority comes from Italy, the biggest producer in the world is Spain. Italy, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Tunisia, and Morocco make up the other big players in the olive-oil game, and each country has its share of artisan producers too. There are three main categories: refined, virgin, and extra-virgin, with the latter being of the best quality, due to its complex flavour and labour-intensive production method.
Choosing the right olive oil for the right dish or style of cooking is akin to choosing the right wine for your meal. There’s the levels of bitterness and acidity to consider, as well as body and intensity of flavour. Typically, they’re divided into three main categories: delicate, medium, and intense, and can taste anywhere from buttery to peppery and herbaceous. Oils made with younger olives tend to be more bitter, and ones made with olives that are riper have a sweeter taste. Sampling the oil is much like wine tasting too, with a swirl in the glass and inspection of the nose crucial to assessing an oil’s flavour profile. Although it might be tempting to keep a bottle of olive oil in your cupboard for special occasions only, it’s best to use it within 18 months of bottling, or you run the risk of a dull-flavoured drizzle.
If there’s any group of people who are passionate about which oil they use, it’s chefs. So, we asked a selection of London’s best chefs – from those at mainstay restaurants like Italian deli Lina Stores to new players like Caia’s Jessica Donovan – to suggest their favourite olive oils for your kitchen cupboard.
Top olive oil recommendations from London chefs
Diarmuid Goodwin, head chef at Sager + Wilde Paradise Row
My favourite olive oil would have to be Capezzana Unfiltered Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This olive oil has a very intense green colour, fruity aroma and a taste of fresh cut grass and artichoke on the palate. It’s beautifully dense and viscous with a long finish. An elegant olive oil, it’s perfect for finishing dishes. It’s a real treat when it’s released every year.
Imad Alarnab, chef-patron of Imad’s Syrian Kitchen
For me, Spanish and Greek oil are the best options for cooking. My personal favourite is Spanish single-varietal Cornicabra: this oil is perfect for cooking and dressing. It’s also the closest one to Syrian olive oil, which brings me back to my roots and homeland. I use it for absolutely everything; it’s the essence of Syrian and Mediterranean cooking. My favourite breakfast is actually pitta bread with a drizzle of olive oil.
Jacob Kenedy, chef-patron of Bocca di Lupo
I pour La Bandiera olive oil, from Tuscany, both at my home table and at Bocca di Lupo. It is made by a friend of mine, but I enjoy it not for nepotism, but for flavour. It’s among the finest Tuscan oils I have tried so far from one of the oldest family estates in the region of Bolgheri. For some reason, it is insanely good value (£60 for five litres) – so when I fatten myself up in November on fett’unta (slices of bread drowned in a ridiculous amount of verdant, new-season oil and a sprinkling of crunchy salt), I don’t need to feel too guilty.
Masha Rener, head chef at Lina Stores
I have always been very outspoken about my love for Sicily, so it’s no surprise that Lina Stores’ oil comes from a remote part of this region – the Nebrodi mountains, immediately northwest of Mount Etna. This unique environment allows producers to create a monocultivar olive oil made with Tonda Iblea olives. It’s great for cooking with fish and meat given its almost buttery consistency, but in my opinion, the best way to taste it is on a bruschetta.
Oded Oren, chef-patron of Oren
I’ve been using Terra Creta olive oil for the last five or six years now. I particularly like this olive oil because of its low acidity and fruitiness. It’s a beautifully balanced olive oil which works really well with our food at Oren as it’s not overpowering. It’s very subtle and works perfectly as a dressing for a leafy salad or as a finishing touch over raw fish.