Through my mail this week I received a bottle of Antichi Frantoi Francescani Extra Virgin Olive Oil courtesy of the rather wonderful Gabriele at www.sfoodle.com. Brimming in curiosity but hampered by knowledge I decided to do my homework before attempting to review or cook with it.
I started by turning to someone who should know a good olive oil – Giorgio Locatelli. He has a great section in his Made In Italy: Food And Stories all about olive oil. He talks about the variety of olive oils and the difference in flavours between regions. He also talks about his preference for matching oil from the region with the local dishes. Of course, to make this work the olive oil has to be made from the region in the first place. Giorgio gives some tips for spotting quality. Italian olive oil should be cultivated and produced in Italy and ideally in a particular region. Perfection would be a single variety of olive.
I also wanted to know what sort of olive oil we are dealing with. Extra virgin olive oil is made by cold pressing means – no heat or chemicals – with a resulting clear olive flavour with low oleic acidity. The point is that this is basically olive juice and should be used in a way which takes advantage of the flavour. Extra virgin olive oil is not suitable for frying and so if I’m going to try this out it will be in a dressing or to juice up something delicious I’ve cooked.
Reading the label and some of the blurb on the website reveals good news. This is a true Italian olive oil made from Italian olives. It’s not the top end of the range by the look of the website. It’s produced in Umbria from a blend of oils and the website suggests it has a subtle flavour to be used in recipes where the oil isn’t meant to be the star.
I also did a taste test. I have a Napolina and a Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oils to compare with. I realise now that I don’t ever want to taste olive oils again. While the texture is fantastic – it’s like a silky blanket running over your tongue – the taste of olive oil on its own is less appealing. I’m sure there are afficionados who will argue to the contrary but I did this in the cause of fairness but I wont be doing it again. The Napolina has a slight acidity which adds character to it. The Filippo Berio tasted slightly fusty by comparison and this would come across if it was used as a dressing on its own for salad. The Francescani is slightly sweet by comparison and it strikes me as an ideal base for a subtle dressing or to loosen something earthy. It’s the best of the three for a clean taste. I’ve had both in the past where the oil has completely overpowered/ruined it.
The price of both the Napolina and Filippo Berio are both around £3.75 per 750ml. I haven’t got a price for this but I suspect it will sell wholesale for significantly more (and be worth it). I’d buy it for salad dressings – I can also imagine it drizzled over bread with garlic.
To try it out a little more I decided to go with earthy Umbrian flavours given the time of year and the weather outside.
I started by taking a leg of lamb – still working through the http://www.kenilworthfreerange.co.uk beast – and liberally coating it in the oil and seasoning it well. I used smoked sea salt. I then roasted it for an hour and a half on a rack to give me a medium roast.
I love puy lentils – they give great texture and healthy bulk to meals. I cooked some puy lentils in vegetable stock for fifteen minutes and put them to one side. I want something a little lighter and so I want the lentils to have their own distinct flavour. When everything is cooked together the flavour becomes a little muddy. In a separate pan I softened diced carrot, chopped coriander stalks, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, a small diced red onion, a finely chopped leek, some lemon zest and a few sprigs of thyme. Finally in a a bowl I put some chopped mint, diced cucumber, chopped coriander, juice of one lemon, and lashings of the Antichi Frantoi olive oil.
I also roasted some small stalks of carrot and parsnip (allowing for the longer cooking time of the carrot). When the vegetable mix had softened I stirred the lentils through it and added a packet of washed spinach leaves and let them steam down.
After resting the lamb joint I cut the joint into slices. I stirred the herb mix into the lentil mix and seasoned to taste. With some roast vegetables on top and the lamb slices it made a very pretty plate and tasted fantastic. The last minute addition of the herbs, lemon on cucumber mix added a zing and some texture which went very well with the lamb. So did a nice bottle of Chianti Classico 2011. This all gave me another six plates (21-26) of food from my half a lamb.