Though I’m not a professional sommelier, one of my favourite things to do (other than drinking wine) is obsessively daydream about which wines to pair with my next meal. Depending on the type of meal that you’re having and the company you’re with, another liquid complement with similar levels of complexity and health benefits to consider pairing with food is olive oil.
Along with its plethora of health benefits, a good extra virgin olive oil is an essential ingredient in certain dishes and can be a wonderful complement to a multi-course meal (including dessert). Loaded with antioxidants (including vitamin E and K) and rich in monosaturated fats, it can help lower cholesterol levels, reduce heart problems and can be a healthy and tasty alternative to butter for vegans and those with dairy restrictions like myself. Yet like anything else, it should be consumed in moderation given it still has the same number of calories as canola oil and butter (around 120 calories a teaspoon).
During a delectable multi-course lunch workshop featuring a sampling of acclaimed Australian Chef Shane Osborne’s signature dishes at Michelin-starred Arcane, we took away 5 key factors when it comes to selecting, storing and pairing olive oil with different food and wines:
- Classification: A Mediterranean staple along with wine, olive oil is often produced in wine regions with Mediterranean-like climates featuring moderate to warm temperatures. And like wines, olive oil production is tightly governed by a similar classification system. To make sure you’re getting a good quality bottle of premium olive oil, be sure to check the label to see if it has been rated a PGI or PDO (highest level) olive oil under the EU system. This applies to olive oils made in the EU including Italy, Greece, France, Spain and Portugal.
- Ageing: Unlike fine wines, olive oils aren’t meant to age. Be sure to look for the expiration date on the bottle, as you ideally want it when it’s fresh, and it’s better to buy locally if you can. As with wines, you’ll want to protect it against heat and humidity. Unopened they can be stored for a year, but after opening a bottle, it should be consumed in the next 60–90 days to get the best flavours; longer than that and it will be subject to oxidation.
- Price range: According to Arcane general manager and resident olive oil expert Stefano Bartolomei, a rule of thumb is to expect to pay in the range of HK$200–$300 for a decent bottle of olive oil. High-end olive oils that can go for HK$500 or more are simply “too much.”
- Serving style: Though recent studies have shown that even extra virgin olive oils have a higher smoking temperature than previously thought, Stefano still vigorously attests that it would be a waste to cook with good quality olive oil; it should be served raw and paired with specific dishes for the right balance. Another food rule that most of us have broken many times is dipping bread in a mixture of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Bread should be served only with high-quality olive oil, if at all.
- Varieties: Similarly to wine, the taste and flavour of olive oil is tied to the climate, soil and terroir. Depending on the region, there can be hundreds of varieties; if you’re just looking for a decent bottle, be sure to always select extra virgin olive oil, which is the highest quality available, as it’s met certain standards of production (e.g. organically farmed, cold-extraction, no preservatives or chemicals added, etc.). As a result, it tends to have more of a true olive oil taste, with an intense, grassy, fruity flavour that’s also bitter with a peppery tinge at times.
Christina Tam is a wine & spirits columnist for Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong. A communications professional by day, Christina is an experience-seeking oenophile who is constantly inspired by wine’s ability to transport through its geography, culture and history with one sip. Follow her on Instagram @madame_toastte.