Getting up close and personal with Filippo Berio's Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Although we may not cook Italian food ourselves at our supper clubs and events it remains one of my favourite cuisines to cook at home. There are many things I love about Italian cuisine but the importance they place on ingredients is something I aspire to as a chef and enjoy immensely as a diner. It was with great pleasure therefore that I accepted an invitation from Filippo Berio to go on an Italian foodie adventure along with a mini-bus of other UK-based supper club hosts, bloggers and chefs.
We stayed at Toscana Saporita, a beautiful cookery school run by chef and teacher Sandra Lotti, an expert in Tuscan regional cuisine. Sandra took us through a few dishes and we helped prepare the ribollita soup for the following night accompanied with some amazing stories and anecdotes. It was a real pleasure to cook with Sandra, it’s only when you start to peel back the layers on Italian cuisine that you begin to appreciate the incredible depth to Italian cooking. It’s really true that the apparent simplicity of the dishes we all know and love belies the incredible complexity that makes Italian food a symbol of Italy as much the monuments and galleries you can see in Rome or Florence.
We were also lucky enough to enjoy a proper four course Italian feast prepared by Sandra and Chris Covelli. It was absolutely delicious, I’m not sure why we don’t include a pasta course in all of our meals!
The main reason we went to Italy however as to learn more about extra virgin olive oil and Filippo Berio. Like most people I was a little confused when it came to cooking with olive oil. There’s been a lot written in the past few years about the health benefits for and against olive oil and extra virgin olive oil in particular. Therefore it was great to go behind the scenes and see the process behind a bottle of Filippo Berio all the way from tree to plate. I learnt a lot for sure, and it really opened my eyes to different ways of using olive oil in our dishes.
We visited Tenuta Maria Teresa, an estate just outside of Lucca, and aside from having one of the best views I have ever seen it also supplies olives that have been specially selected by Filippo Berio to create its Gran Cru oil. Filippo Berio doesn’t just use olives from Tuscany but olives from all over the med to create their signature blend such is demand for their oils all over the world. Farmers send their very best harvest all the way from Spain, Portugal, Greece, Tunisia and of course Italy to the factory just outside of Lucca. Now it's time for me to admit something… I thought I knew what extra virgin meant, it means young right? Until the trip I presumed that extra virgin meant the young harvest, and your standard olive oil was from older olives. I couldn’t have been more wrong! Always good to keep learning! Extra virgin is a tightly controlled and certified term for pure olive oil with an acidity level of less than 0.8%. Indeed, so important is the quality of the oil, Filippo Berio taste and lab test all oils that arrive at their factory to ensure that the oils that make their extra virgin blend are absolutely perfect. If the oil isn’t up to scratch, then it’s either sent back or goes in to be purified to make up their non-extra virgin olive oil.
We were given exclusive insight into just how Filippo Berio make this happen. A private oil tasting showed us all just how much the taste of oils changes depending on where it was harvested and how old the oil is, all the way to the ambient temperature of the pressing. It was an incredible experience, so interesting to go into such detail and it really made me appreciate the work that goes into creating the end product. Filippo Berio have a team of expert tasters that ensure the flavour is just right (they even abstain from coffee in order to protect their taste buds, how about that for commitment!) as well as a lab to chemically analyse each sample of oil to ensure the quality is high enough.
What does this mean for the cook? In a word, flavour. Extra virgin olive oil gives you the amazing taste and aromatics that you expect from high quality olive oil. This is because the oil has been simply pressed and unrefined, so that the flavours from the olives are still present. It also contains more of the natural vitamins and minerals found in olives which makes it a healthier option than your standard olive oil. When it comes to cooking these flavours present in the oil can add another layer to your dishes. Italians are an expert in utilising the flavours of extra virgin to add complexity and depth to their dishes, using it as a seasoning as much as in the cooking process. Indeed, there are some dishes that demand a particular extra virgin from a particular region or type of olive, depending on the fruitiness or peppery notes that are appropriate. Filippo Berio extra virgin is a blend of the finest oils to create a flavourful and harmonious taste profile that is always the same, wherever and whenever you buy it.
We got to thinking and have come up with a couple of ideas of how to use the extra virgin olive oil as a core ingredient in some seasonal dishes. You may be surprised just how versatile an ingredient it is and how much flavour it can bring to your cooking, let us know if you try the dishes and what you think!
Check out our confit hake with watercress sauce here!