Castillo de Canena EVOO with Arbequina olives 4/5

Even though our oil has not run out (yet) we recently bought Castillo de Canena 1780 Arbequina’s EVOO  (currently on offer, 500ml for £7.80 from Waitrose) for an oil tasting fundraising event run for our kids’ Primary School PTA.

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It is a single variety Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)  called, funnily enough, Arbequina, made from this fairly large Spanish producer based in Jaen, Andalucia. This area is called the Tuscany of Spain, and it is one of the largest olive producing provinces of Spain, accounting for 75% of the world’s olive oils. The business is run by Rosa and Francisco Vañó, siblings who left corporate careers to turn their family-run business, which had been producing lower quality mass produced oil for over 200 years, into a company that wins international awards for its EVOO which it produces in its own mill. The siblings share a passion for creating great oils, with sustainable farming and quality at the heart of their practice.

Notice the label says ‘Early Harvest’; this is a great sign, as the earlier the olives are picked, the higher the number of polyphenols, and the more bitter and pungent the oil. So it’s the polyphenols that you can smell and taste; these are what makes EVOO so good for you as this is the volatile 1% of the oil and its what contains the vitamins and anti-oxidants. High levels of polyphenols mean that the oils have longer shelf life. This is important for Arbequina oils, as they are recognised to have low levels of polyphenols. In fact, I chose this oil believing it would be a mild, light oil.


However, Paolo and I classified it as medium-robust and gave it a 4/5; it was excellent. It got this high score, despite it being unfamiliar to our Italian-trained taste buds, as its qualities were undeniable. All Italians secretly – or not so secretly – prefer the oil from their own region, but this oil has all three of the qualities tasters must find in an EVOO; fruity, bitter, pungent, and it has it in abundance. We would have given it 5/5 but I found that it’s bitter taste was someone masked by the fruity pungency of the oil, and so to my taste was not perfectly balanced.

Its aroma was strong and pleasant, fruity with a hint of green banana, apple, peach, quince, with light herbal touches.

On the palate this taste transformed into fresh artichoke, tomatoes and green nuts, with an almond after taste. It’s bitterness was present but not overwhelming, and the taste lingered pleasantly on the palate.

As you swallow you can feel the peppery pungency in your throat, and we discovered to our surprise that if you slurp too much, it makes you cough; this is the oleocanthal burn, EVOO’s anti-inflammatory magic. As you breath out, the fruit comes back at you and is very pleasant.

In terms of food pairing, as this was a very aromatic and peppery oil, it would go well with meats and roasts. For the bread and oil dippers out there, it can stand up to a bit of balsamic vinegar, although I always tell the vinegar obsessed to hold off on the vinegar and let the taste of the oil shine through.

If you have some, let us know what you think!


Clearspring 100% Italian Organic EVOO 4/5


20180325_082744Clearspring’s 100% Italian Organic EVOO – which you can buy in Malmesbury’s Wild Food Co. – ticks all the boxes. Retailing at between £14.50-15.95 it’s fairly priced. In a dark glass bottle, it’s got a great label with all the right info; no mention of cold press, here we have the correct expression “cold extraction”. It states the production year; it would have been slightly less ambiguous if this stated year if harvest (although you are not obliged by the EU or UK’s Food Standards 20180325_082653Agency, to include this info it proves your credentials if you do).

The oil is a blend of Italian oil and it did taste familiar. Northern Italian oils tend to score 1-2 out of 10 for their strength of flavour (n.b. this is not a quality score but a measure of taste). They are delicious as they are, but are sometimes blended with a 9-10 very  fruity, bitter and peppery Calabrian oil. This is probably how this oil was blended and the result is a pleasant balanced oil with a hint of artichoke, medium to low bitterness and medium to low peppery (about 3 on the taste scale). A good blend for the UK consumer that is not accustomed to fresh strong tasting oils.

Clearspring Ltd is a family run company set up by Christopher Dawson in the 1990s to offer Japanese organic health food produce to the UK market. Other online reviews of this oil seem positive. I’ve given it 4/5 only because I found its fruity note to be a bit bland but this maybe because I am more used to the green grassy taste of Sicilian EVOO.




Another good value EVOO in Malmesbury…if you can’t get hold of ours!

Today, as we track the progress of our precious oil through bottling and labelling, we finished this lovely bottle of Cretan EVOO. Without any of our own oil this last year, we have tried a fair few.

It’s the best we have found at the Malmesbury, purchased for £6 for 500ml at Waitrose. It is in a dark glass, bottle, with a pourer that we really liked. All good so far.


It was bottled by a Greek company named GAEA. They don’t grow or mill the olives, but work with a series of olive producers and community mills.

The one we bought was from the Sitia region of Crete, made by members of a co-operative part of the Sitia PDO. PDO is a guarantee of quality, as there is a strict regime that checks the entire food chain from its origin and variety of the olives that makes it.

The label states it is “cold pressed” which we sincerely doubt, as very few quality oils are made using the old fashioned press.

The use of “cold-press” as a term is obsolete. The EU’s marketing standards legislate against its use for oils produced in modern mills. So, at best, if the term is accurate, and the oil is produced in a press, then this would be a low quality oil to be avoided. At worst, the use of this term is a marketing trick, designed to evoke a more traditional, romantic notion of olive oil production, and is both misleading and illegal.

In fact a bit of research on-line reveals that after the GAEA Sitia “olives are picked and washed, the 9000 small farms of the Sitia Cooperative — the farmers share ownership with GAEA — bring their olives to 23 community mills” where “steel blades at the mill crush the olives immediately.”

The co-operative’s alliance with GAEA is undoubtedly providing these Cretan producers with stability and a higher income, so a big thumbs up for this oil ethically (Tom Mueller, in his excellent book, Extra Virginity: the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, wrote in positive terms about another GAEA co-operative in eastern Crete, Kritsa, where there is the highest pro-capita consumption of olive oil in the world, a whopping 50l per year as compared to 1l per year in the UK.)

Back to this tasty oil, it is labelled as green and fruity, and slightly peppery. The first description, if it as a colour, is not in itself an indicator of quality, green can be introduced in a lab, and some golden oils are prize winning. An oil can taste green, and this one does, its fruity flavour is green, and this is a quality that official oil tasters qualify and quantify when they are required to panel test whether an oil is extra virgin.

Alivu’s qualified tasters (that’d be me and Paolo) confirm it is indeed fruity, pleasantly so, we’d give it a 3. The bitterness is less pronounced , a 2 at best, and the third quality, peppery, we’d give it a 1. We didn’t note any defects, and we have had two bottles in the last 6 months. So at £6 for 500ml we think this is a good buy.

Happily, we won’t need to buy it for a while, because ours will be shortly on its way! This time I will try very hard not to sell the last of our oil to the good people of Malmesbury.

Harvest 2017 – a year of plenty. Part 1-the pickers’ story

This year looked good in the making, but as I wrote in my last blog, the pressure was on to make top-notch EVOO in a short window of time by:

(a) picking our olives without damaging them (how you pick affects the quality of your end product, especially the acidity); and,

(b) getting them milled as quickly as possible (time and the millers craft affect quality even more.)


Ready for picking

The balance between maximum oil and maximum polyphenols (containing all the good stuff oil is famous for) is the moment olives start turning from green to purple/black.

Our olives were in a perfect state. More green than black (better). The correct term is invaiati.


So we were spot on time for picking but would our village mill open on our schedule? Picked olives are fresh fruit that start to rot immediately. Would the miller judge it to be the right time for enough people? Would they predict enough custom to open within our brief window of 6 days?

We arrived in Villarosa on Thursday, checked our gear, visited the mill and heard that they planned to get started on Saturday.

Friday saw us hit the grove feeling hopeful, that with the help of Paolo’s uncle, his gardener/friend Lucio, and volunteers on their way from Catania and the UK, we would make it. By lunch time we were dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion. Picking in 32’C isn’t ideal but it’s still better than rain.

Day 1 was tough; old unpruned trees on a steep slope made for slow progress. If only we’d pruned them 2 years ago! We’d been discouraged when we’d suggested it (family politics and stinginess) but now the trees were so gnarly that we wished we’d played dumb and done it anyway. We managed to pick only 300kg. But we were happy. This picture shows the joy of a day in our fields and of friendships rekindled.


Shortly after this photo, taken at the mill; Stefano the miller told us he’d open “maybe Sunday, probably Monday.”


Cleaning out the Alivu silo with paper towels

Aaaaghhh! But we’d started so interrupting wasn’t an option.

Days 2 and 3 we picked faster and greener olives. These keep better. The new gadget, affectionately known as the olive tickler, worked miracles but we felt the hassle of nets that were too small to make the process fully efficient.

20171020_152626Nevertheless, we rewarded ourselves with the time and luxury for some old fashioned picnics.


By Day 3 we had a couple of extra paid hands with us, who using their gear and tractor and trailer, made a big difference but we dreaded to think how much more we were spending on labour.


Mimmo’s cunning trailer – cuts out a couple of stages by replacing use of the small fruit crates

On Day 4 our London friends came. More picking.


Another picnic, this one cooked using olive wood.


By the end of Tuesday, Day 5, we had finished picking. The mill still hadn’t started but this time we believed their promise of “domani – tomorrow”. We had little choice but to believe…day 6 was our last day before flying back to the UK.  The kids had gone free range but had also got stuck in. We felt triumphant.


The last day and the littlies share the satisfaction of a job well done

Picking is only 20% of the story. The miller’s skills is the main factor influencing an oils quality.

But that’s another story and it’s late, so I’ll save Day 6 for part 2.

Harvest ’17 forecast – start early, but don’t stress

Don’t stress says the “bolletino fitopatologico” which pops into Alivu’s inbox every month. Pardon, all non-Italian speakers say? It’s our “disease and pest newsletter” from our nearest Association of Olive Producers (APO) in Catania. This one’s important; it’s the one before harvest 2017.

Anche se la stagione autunnale ha fatto il suo ingresso soprattutto con le abbondanti piogge della scorsa settimana, le condizioni climatiche sono rimaste decisamente estive con temperature piuttosto elevate. La mosca olearia è stata ulteriormente danneggiata e disturbata dalle piove, quindi nessun allarme ma continuare ad attenzionare il controllo delle 100 drupe per azienda, che la soglia d’intervento non superi il 15% delle olive danneggiate. Si consiglia di non intervenire con i trattamenti fitosanitari ma di anticipare la raccolta. Un gran numero di frantoi hanno già anticipato l’apertura e sono in piena attività; inoltre le belle giornate di tempo soleggiato e temperature mite, favoriscono una raccolta tranquilla delle olive, senza essere stressati dalla fretta. 

Briefly, it’s rained, but is warm again, good news for olives: the trees hang on to them for a bit longer i.e. more olives with more oil. Bad news for our major pest, the olive oil fly: too hot and dry for breeding (they lay their eggs inside the olive, ruining it). Nevertheless, APO Catania says many of the region’s mills have already opened to avoid any loss. So start early, but don’t worry, the bolletino continues,  sunny warm temperature favours a calm harvest: don’t stress; no need to rush.

If only! We’re arriving in 1 week’s time, as we always pick as early as possible, and it is also the only time we can go, with kids of school age, we go out in half-term school holidays. We are only there for a week. And we have nearly 300 trees. There is a real risk that the mill is not yet open.  APO-Catania does not cover our region, which is Enna. The advice may not have reached Enna. There is no APO in Enna unfortunately, and within Sicily, our region is accused of being a bit disorganised by the olive community. We’ll be rushing, together with our 3 new volunteers. Tradition outweighs other considerations, and people in Enna are reluctant to change the November start date no matter what APO Catania says.


A lovely volunteer checking nets during our last big harvest in 2015

So keep fingers crossed that our village mill opens earlier than tradition and starts “sporcando” or “dirtying the machine” with the mill owners’ own olives (they do this to start the ball rolling as the first batch of oil takes on the metallic taste of the mill and cannot be sold as Extra Virgin).

The miller has to judge when everyone thinks the season is starting before he gets going.  Once a mill starts, it needs to keep running lest the olive paste in the milling chambers starts to oxidise and go off, ruining everyone elses oil.

In this chicken and egg situation, everyone watches the miller to see when to start, but if he hasn’t opened, nobody starts picking.  It’s a waiting game, and there is no point stacking your olive bins ready to go as olives should be milled within 24 hours of picking or they start to decay and this will affect the quality of your oil, again, risking that it doesnt make the grade as Extra Virgin.

And in all of this, a bad weather incident, freak hail storms and high winds, can ruin your crop. Rain can stop you harvesting.

So don’t stress says APO Catania. We’ll do our best!



Arrivederci Sicilia

It was a hot four weeks, but if you are on a mission, what’s a bit of heat. 40′ in the shade heat.

What was my mission? Well, it’s a privilege to have 4 weeks to spend with your children, and at the moment I am lucky enough to be able to manage my consultancy  work load as and when I chose, so why not go to our other place for the whole summer?

We really want to help our children live Italian as their other language, not just how they occasionally speak to papa and nonna.

We want them to remember their places, their friends, their family. Our eldest was at school in Villarosa, our youngest was weaned, learnt to walk and talk there. Our house is full of baby toys, books and memories.

We want them to feel ownership of their olive oil, which they help to make themselves, picking, moving nets and mainly climbing trees.

We want them to have respect for their land, its trees and in a wider sense, for the beautiful, mixed up complicated place that is Sicily.

So, arriverderci Sicilia, for now, we’ll be back soon.




Olives with three months to go

It’s very hot. Southern Italy has been experiencing three months of heat wave, most days it’s 38-40’c. Fires have been raging around the island, some accidentally, unfortunately without a shadow of doubt,others intentionally.

On a personal level the three wheat fields surrounding our Maiorana groves caught fire last month. A lad had to abandon his combine harvester as the fire engulfed the field he was working. He was hospitalised for smoke poisoning. The harvester faired less well.


The burnt out combine harvester abandoned in a blackened wheat field

I went today to see for myself. Luckily only 7 of our 170 trees were damaged, scorched by the heat rather than burnt.


One of our scorched centenary olive trees

Many are heavy with olives, and no sign of the olive oil fly. It’s simply too hot and dry. The young trees were watered in June and July. They’ll get another drink this month. It’s early days but the signs are good. We’ve got two volunteers signed up so far and it looks like we’ll have our work cut out for us.


Tasted but no thanks: Napolina Standard EVOO gets a slippery 0/5

I have to confess that I bought Napolina’s standard Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) for my first tasting session last December, held with Malmesbury’s Women’s Business Network, in our local Co-op shop for £3.75 for 500ml as the standard low-quality cheap oil, presenting it alongside Alivu’s handpicked EVOO, and the Sainsbury’s DOP suspecting that the Napolina EVOO would be the bland one.

However, I wasn’t prepared for how rough it would be. Especially as ‘Which’ magazine voted this oil one of the best buys in the country in 2011.

Napolina has a lovely Italian sounding name, and its website emphasises the company’s Italian roots. Now Napolina is 100% owned by The Prince group, which in turn owns several well known brands such as Branston, Cross & Blackwell as well as several oil brands you may have heard of: Olivia; Mazola; Flora; Crisp and Dry.  It has its HQ in Liverpool but the Olive Oil is bottled at ‘Edible oils’ bottling plant in Belvedere,  which is not on the banks of the Tiber but on the Thames, near the Cross Ness Sewage treatment works in Greater London. Who says there is no romance in food ay?

So who owns Princes foods? Apparently it is 100% owned by Mitsubishi Corporation, Japan’s largest trading company.


Edible Oils plant in Belvedere, Kent

The bottle claims that the oil is produced with 100% EU olives. More on that another time.

So back to the taste test. Can anyone recall the list I wrote in my previous blog on how to determine whether your olive oil is likely to be any good, even before you have tasted it?


Next you taste to identify defects and qualities. If the defects are serious, even if there are qualities present, a tasing panel will reject the oil as Extra Virgin.

I ran through the steps of tasting our oil with the group. Warm, sniff, sip and slurp, swallow and breath out through your nose. I described what they should be looking for: the fruity smell, the bitter taste, the spicy kick as you swallow and another fruity whiff as you breath out at the end. I didn’t describe the defects, I wanted to see if the could detect tgem without my help. If you have never tasted an oil straight you may not appreciate how a defect jumps right out at you.

Having explained what to do my group of 8 tasters, who were all doing this for the first time, we tasted the three oils blind. The oils were held in small transparent cups although, as I have explained before, colour is not a good indication of taste or quality. The cups were  colour coded so I could track which one we were tasting.

Some preferred the Alivu Oil to the Sainsbury’s Sicilian DOP (I will be evaluating this next time) but they all universally condemned Napolina and were all surprised when I revealed which brand it was, and that I had only just bought and opened the bottle.

Our observations included that the oil looked rather thin when swirled around in our tasting glasses. Participants said: the oil smelt of paint stripper or petrol; it was unpleasant; it smelt of oil, this last comment was the most positive. It tasted bitter, in theory a quality, but if the bitter is unpleasant, leaving your mouth goopy and sticky, it is the bitterness associated with a defect. It burned a little bit in the throat. It didn’t have a fruity taste. This was the groups opinion.

What we had detected was a serious defect; rancidity. The oil was old and off. Rancid is the most obvious of defects. It is the smell of dusty, musty, oxidised fat. You can smell it, taste it and it’s strong in your retro smell. Its closest association is paint stripper. This gives it a high score on the defects. In terms of its qualities:

Fruity: 0/10

Bitter: 1/10

Spicy: 1/10

I can’t recommend this to you I’m afraid, not even for cooking in. Sorry Mitsubishi Corporation. There is no poetry in your oil. And it tastes grim.

Alivu Phase 2: how to taste an oil

Back in November, I wrote about our nonexistent 2016 harvest and the new angle that Alivu was planning to take in 2017; running tasting sessions to teach people how to decipher between their oils. In 2015 Paolo and I qualified as olive oil tasters, part one of a two-part course which olive oil tasters must complete in order to join government-authorised olive oil tasting panels, charged with analysing the organoleptic properties of olive oil; the aspects that an individual experiences via our senses.


An accredited ‘Panel’ for tasting olive oil in Italy

The importance of these properties has been recognised for thousands of years. And they can be tasted. Given our most delicious oil is not available until the end of 2017, Alivu’s plan is to help you taste oils and recommend some to buy. Over the next year, Alivu will be tasting mainstream products available in the Malmesbury area, so at least we will all know what we are buying out there in slippery world of EVOO.

So, in December, Alivu ran it’s first tasting session, with the Malmesbury Women’s Business network, tasting three different Extra Virgin Olive Oils, at least, that is what we supposed they were. I will be writing about these oils next week, but before I go any further, it is worth explaining why tasting oils is so important, with fraud rife and oil at such varying prices.

The problem?

Only 3% of olive oil milled in the world makes the grade as Extra Virgin Olive Oil or EVOO; it’s more costly to produce a genuine EVOO oil both in terms of harvest and it terms of milling and storing. Olive oil is a juice extracted directly from the fruit. If you pick at the right time, it tastes pleasant and has all the beneficial properties that olive oil is famous for, and keeps them for longer. So what? The problem is that it is more labour intensive to harvest, and the olives that make EVOO have a lower yield of oil. In theory, the higher price of EVOO recognises this extra effort, but in practice, many companies are after a quick buck and fake it.

What makes an oil EVOO as opposed to just Olive Oil?

To make EVOO you need to pick your olives as soon as they start to ripen; these green olives are harder to pick when compared to later in the season when the mature fruit is less attached to the stem, and are also less productive when you mill them; the amount of oil you get from a greener olive is less than the oil you get from a ripe, black olive. This is because the black olives are already fermenting, and produce a greater quantity of runny oil. This is why a mill that heats the olive paste can extract more oil.


A traditional oil press in Western Turkey (Photo: Aydin Cetinbostagoglu)

EVOO must be produced only using mechanical (i.e. not chemical) methods – a press or mill – and at low temperatures (not exceeding 27’C). Heating the oil breaks it down whereupon you lose some of its qualities. This is why you read ‘cold press’ and ‘cold extraction’ on your bottle (incidentally the former should only be used if an actual ‘press’ has been used, most prize-winning oils are extracted in a mill, where quality can be more closely controlled).

To sell your product as EVOO, the oil must go to a registered lab and pass a chemical analyses which measures its acidity amongst other things (low acidity – less than 0.8 – is required for the EVOO grade).

If you don’t make the grade with the acidity test, then the oil gets sold on to a bottling company or refinery, where it is heated to 2000’C, stripped of its defects with solvents and then resold as ‘olive oil either as ‘olive oil’ (which must have at least 1% EVOO content) or ‘lamp’ oil, which is not even fit for human consumption. It is this which is ‘Olive Oil’. Yuk.

Given all these extra costs, you can see how it is so lucrative to sell your lower grade oil as EVOO. How? By faking it. Acidity can be fixed in a lab, a practice which is allegedly common in the big bottling plants. It is made to taste and look better using chlorophyl (green) and carotene (taste). So how can you tell?

The solution?

The fact is that if you are used to a genuine EVOO, you won’t be easily fooled by these fakes. However, if you are used to cooking with oils, or mixing them with vinegar and herbs for your dressing rather than tasting them, you may be tricked.

One solution is making an organoleptic analysis mandatory. Only authorised panels can conduct these analysis. Even if your oil’s acidity is low enough to pass the chemical analysis, even it was extracted mechanically and at the requisite low temperatures, it still doesn’t mean that it will pass the taste test.

If the tasters detect a fault – rancid, vinegar, metallic, mouldy, heated, muddy – using a highly rigorous tasting system, it will not be awarded the coveted EVOO standard, and can only be sold as olive oil. At present, the organoleptic analysis is optional, only necessary if you want to use descriptions such as ‘fruity’, ‘bitter’, ‘spicy’, ‘green’ (amongst others) on your label. If you look at the back of your bottle, it probably doesn’t use any of these optional descriptions.

So why is it not mandatory? Many, especially interest groups trying to raise oil quality and small producers, wish it were, but the idea is lobbied against by the big bottling companies, who, as I mentioned above have their own labs, and often their own qualified tasters. They argue it is subjective, but their real motives are financial. If they weren’t worried about the quality of their oil they wouldn’t be threatened.

So look at your oil’s description, a self-respecting producer will have a description such as fruity or spicy. Even then, this is not a fool-proof guarantee, as at present the EU requires best-before dates that are very long (18 months only after you have bottled the oil, which may have been harvested – and analysed – years before). Oil does go off, eventually, but an air tight dark bottle will keep it in a good state for a while. No self-respecting Sicilian will use oil older than 1-2 years. Real aficionados prefer to use theirs within 6 months of picking, a bottle is open for days, not months.

What about us Northerners buying in good faith? The situation may, at this point, sound pretty hopeless.

How will I ever know if I have the real thing? Here are some tips….

A lot of oils are for sale, and if you can afford the prize winners then good for you (even this is not a sure thing) but if not look out for:

  • Dark bottle or tin;
  • Year of harvest (buy preferable last years oil);
  • DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetto) or IGP (Indicazione Geografico Protetto) both of which are designations of origins requiring additional checks and controls directly related to the quality and traceability of the product;
  • Single Estate or at least a real producer (as opposed to a bottling company that buys its oil in the tankard or lorry load) and then blends it in a factory;
  • Organoleptic descriptions;
  • learn to taste your oil, straight, like the tasters do and find the oil that is right for you.

If you want to read about the oils that Alivu is buying and trying then watch this space and follow our blog. I will be buying EVOOs available locally and writing about them right here. If you have one you want us to try then write us an email. If you want me to teach you or organise a tasting event, then get in touch!

Next time the blog will look at two EVOOs: Napolina’s EVOO and Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ DOP Val di Mazara EVOO.

From Sicily to Westonbirt — from Parks and Gardens UK

Leaving our olive groves behind last week was hard, we’re happiest pruning and harvesting our trees. But working in Westonbirt school’s beautiful gardens helps. Today we’ve been digging up ivy and brambles. Everyday grind in a glorious place. It’s exciting to be part of an entirely different landscapes long history. Especially exciting to be involved now, with Heritage Lottery Funds on their way, and the gardens due to be restored, involving community partners and opening up to a wider public, with the aim of being more inclusive.

A piece from an excellent blog on garden history:

Everyone’s heard of Westonbirt Arboretum, one of the most extensive and beautiful collections of trees in the country. But how about the other gardens at Westonbirt? Perhaps not. Yet like the arboretum they were created by the same visionary, Robert Stayner Holford, are just across the road and are open to the public, although they now form […]

via Westonbirt & the Holfords — Parks and Gardens UK