Riccardo Catarsi, head chef of Nicholini’s at The Conrad, prefers extra virgin olive oil for finishing dishes rather than high-temperature cooking. Image courtesy of Nicholini’s.
The origin of the olive oil will also give you a clue about its quality. If it has a D.O.P. label, a certification that identifies a Protected Place of Origin, or similar legally binding labels such as I.G.P or D.O.C.G, says Catarsi, ‘you can rest assured that the olive trees used for their olive oil are located in a protected natural environment’. He also says that the highest-quality olive oil comes from medium-sized family companies or cooperatives that harvest, press and bottle on the same terrain or in the same area. This often means shorter travel time from harvest to processing, which ensures a fresher product with more polyphenols — antioxidant compounds that give the oil flavour (such as a distinctive peppery note in fresh extra virgin olive oils) and potential health benefits. Some high-end olive oils have even taken to labelling the year of production to highlight their freshness.
While dipping bread into extra virgin olive oil is often seen in Mediterranean countries, there are plenty more uses for it. ‘Extra virgin olive oil is good for finishing dishes, like salad, fish, meat, pastas or in dressings or condiments,’ says Catarsi. However, he warns against using it for high-temperature cooking: ‘extra virgin olive oil arrives at its smoking point around 160 degrees Celsius; after that it’s not healthy.’ Catarsi uses sunflower seed oil for this type of cooking, which is also from Italy (he’s quick to add that Nicholini’s uses only the best-quality Italian products); for the same reason, Viglione uses peanut oil for dishes made in the deep-fryer, such as fritto misto, ‘because I believe it’s the best among the seed oils’.
By contrast, Caprioli only uses extra virgin olive oil. ‘There’s no space for anything but extra virgin olive oil in my kitchen,’ he says. He pairs the oil’s flavours with the dish he plans to serve it with: ‘I use different extra virgin olive oils in Giando. Masturzo, from Basilicata in southern Italy, near my hometown, is medium to full-bodied, good for dishes that are complex with strong flavours. Anfosso from Liguria in northern Italy is lighter-bodied but very aromatic, for light dishes like salad, raw fish and vegetables in general.’