“If I had to choose just one ingredient, I’d choose olive oil,” says Cosimo Danese, the Italian head chef at BiCE Ristorante at the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Resort. “I couldn’t work without it. It’s very important. It gives great taste to the food. You don’t need to add anything else to the dish.”
But all olive oil is not created equal. Danese says it’s important to always use extra-virgin olive oil. It’s higher quality and superior in taste to all other olive oils (virgin olive oil is lower in quality but still ranks well in taste). Stay away from refined olive oil, often labelled simply as “olive oil” or “pure olive oil”.
You can find good extra-virgin olive oil in a hypermarket, but Danese says you need to know what to look for.
“If it doesn’t list the region on the bottle, then it’s probably a blend. That’s no good,” he says. “That just means they got the olives from all over. There’s no quality control. You want to know exactly where the olives come from and what kind of olives are used.”
Different countries and regions produce different olives. Understanding the characteristics of the olives in a region can help you select the right olive oil for what you’re cooking. For example, southern Italy produces olives with a strong flavour, while olives from the North are milder.
The olive-oil expert Stephanie Lerouge, a regional buyer at Eataly in Dubai, says olive oil should be tasted on its own, like any other ingredient. “Our Eataly staff will take the time to do a tasting with you so you can learn all the information about the characteristics of the olive oil,” she says.
Danese also wants to educate consumers, and he and his team at BiCE are doing their part. Their signature olive-oil trolley passes through the restaurant every night, featuring more than a dozen options from different regions of Italy.
How to choose the right oil
There are some rules when it comes to pairing olive oil with food. Danese says olive oils with fruity flavours should be used with fish to boost the mild flavour.
Olive oils with strong herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, are best with meat.
When dressing a salad, Danese sticks to mild olive oil. The mild option is also best to cook with, as heat intensifies the flavour of the oil.
Danese also says it’s important to know when – and when not – to use olive oil. For example, a Wagyu steak should never be marinated with olive oil as it masks the natural flavour of the meat.
Lerouge says: “You should have two types of extra-virgin olive oil in your kitchen: one with a delicate and soft taste to pour on dishes such as fish, salads and mozzarella, and another more fruity and robust one to pour on pasta, meat or raw ingredients.”