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Marinated Olives and Does Extra Virgin Make a Difference?

A comparison of extra virgin vs. regular olive oil for this marinated olives recipe.

“Seriously you have to try these olives”

“There good enough to make a true believer out of any olive hater”

“I never ate an olive before these but now this is all I eat.”

I’m paraphrasing (and exaggerating a bit) but that’s the passion that our London hosts have for the marinated olives at their local pizza joint, Pizza East Portobello. We tried them–a medium dish, also including Marcona almonds goes for three pounds–and they do deserve the superlative praise.

Over a couple of his visits to our table I managed to butter the manager-proprietor up enough (playing the “we came all the way from Canada” card didn’t hurt) that he gave me the recipe.

Small mixed olives, rosemary, and slivered garlic went into two containers and were covered in olive oil.

Small mixed olives, rosemary, and slivered garlic went into two containers and were covered in olive oil.

It is: Soak un-pitted Sicilian olives, garlic, rosemary,  and maybe a little lemon rind in olive oil for two to three days. He was sure to stress that the olive oil must be extra virgin.

I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest super-taster but I’m not without some faculty in the area and in so many applications that involve high heat, long times, or strongly-flavoured ingredients ingredients (like garlic, rosemary, and lemon rind) I can’t taste the difference extra virgin makes. Still, claiming its vital necessity comes as second nature to anyone who considers themselves even vaguely connected to the cuisine of an olive-oil-producing country.

An obvious situation for a side-by-side test, I’d say.

I combined about a cup of small, mixed olives with three roughly-slivered cloves of garlic and a scant half teaspoon of dry rosemary. This mixture was divided into two containers. One was filled, to barely cover the olives, with high-quality extra virgin olive oil from Italy, the other with Gallo brand “pure” olive oil of uncertain origin. I used tall, narrow water glasses to try and reduce the amount of oil I’d need.

After two days of soaking I tasted olives from both containers and had two suspicions confirmed. The oil marinade doesn’t just add flavour from the aromatics but it also leaches bitterness and salt from the olives. Also, I can taste absolutely no difference between the regular and the extra virgin oil.

There are two categories in my mind for the reasons why I’d choose not to use regular olive oil and opt for extra virgin oil instead: either the regular isn’t interesting enough for the application (like dressing salad, roasted vegetables, or risotto) or the regular that is at hand is bitter or unpleasant. The best solution I can see is to find a regular olive oil that tastes decent-to-good and then read instructions like “fry in a litre of best-quality extra virgin olive oil” as “be sensible and use a litre of your quite passable regular olive oil for frying.”

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