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‘Olive oil somehow manages to link us to a very ancient past, the “pure” past of the Greeks and the Romans, of Homer and Virgil, leaping, entirely anachronistically, over centuries and centuries of modern life,’ writes Fabrizia Lanza, food scholar and owner of the legendary Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily.

Her book Olive: A Global History is a seminal work on the 4,000-year history of a fruit that’s still central to cooking today, even in Hong Kong, far from the olive’s origins around the Mediterranean.

While Hong Kong doesn’t boast any olive trees of its own, the ‘modern life’ of which Lanza writes does mean we’re able to bring in olive oil from around the world, but with this abundance of oils on menus and shop aisles are all manner of jargon printed on the bottles — D.O.P, virgin, extra virgin. What do they mean, and what difference do they make?

‘Extra virgin olive oil and olive oil are two completely different products,’ says Gianni Caprioli, founder and chef of Giando. As he points out, extra virgin olive oil is the result of the first pressing of olives, and as a result, is the most highly prized. Pici’s executive chef Andrea Viglione adds that ‘producers are compelled by law to label their bottles of olive oil correctly as extra virgin’ so consumers know what they’re buying.

Gianni Caprioli, founder and chef of Giando, uses a medium to full-bodied extra virgin olive for dishes that are complex with strong flavours. Image courtesy of Giando

To understand the differences in extra virgin and regular olive oil, Caprioli suggests sampling the oils side by side. ‘The olive oil will be perceived as acidic: aggressive to the palate, few flavours, light body and no persistence,’ he says. ‘The extra virgin olive oil instead is full of flavours of almonds — especially the aftertaste — aromatic herbs and floral notes. It will have a medium to full body, with a pleasant aftertaste, never acidic.’

‘Extra virgin olive oil is sensitive to light,’ adds Riccardo Catarsi, head chef of Nicholini’s at The Conrad. ‘The quality decreases quickly in a light-coloured or transparent bottle, so dark-coloured bottles are preferred.’

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.’

At Pici, executive chef Andrea Viglione opts for a light Italian extra virgin olive oil for their beloved burrata. Image courtesy of Pici.

Similarly, Viglione says, ‘At Pici, we use two kinds of Italian extra virgin olive oil — one is on top of our burrata, which has a lighter taste, while the other is used for all other dishes.’

Viglione’s approach has been long-held. ‘When I was a kid, I learned that food is all about the ingredients,’ he says. ‘It’s important to consider that oil is at the base of around eighty per cent of all sauces and dressings in Italian cuisine.’ As the foundation of such an ingredient-driven cuisine, there’s little wonder these top chefs won’t skimp on quality.