Picking up where I left off last week, with an olive tree. As far as I know, only the kids and birds pick the olives from this particular tree, which means that between June and December they complete a self-contained, cycle-of-life paint chart: green, to yellow, to violet, to black, to wrinkles, which then return to the earth. If someone were to interrupt this quiet cycle with olive oil in mind, they should do so at the point of invaiatura, or half-ripeness, when the olives are “firm, swollen and virile”, a friend informs me, without laughing. Once picked, olives need to be pressed as soon as possible, and certainly within 48 hours, to avoid the precipitation of acidity and of oxidation, which ruin the distinctive smells, flavour and bitter finish, and sabotages the valuable antioxidants, polyphenols, minerals and vitamins.
One of the most interesting parts of my Zoom olive oil education with Johnny Madge was talking about the relationship and healthy tug between tradition and innovation. When it comes to planting, pruning, tending and picking, traditional and laborious methods still rule among good producers the world over (big producers are, of course, big producers, and generally have one thing in mind). The pressing of olives to olive oil, however, has changed. While Johnny paid respect to millstones and impregnated filler mats, he celebrated the modern continuous method, whereby olives are crushed with a stainless-steel hammer mill and undergo centrifugation, all in scrupulously clean machinery and at a steady temperature, which preserves the natural aromas of the olives. It takes about 8kg olives to make a litre of oil. The first press is what produces extra-virgin olive oil, which also needs to have no defects and no more than 0.8% of free fatty acids. If a second press were to take place, it would be virgin grade at best.
So here I am at my desk, with a minibar of evoos from Puglia, Sicily, Lake Garda, Tuscany, Calabria, Trentino and Umbria, good makers with good values, which ripple back into wherever they are. JM instructs us to pour a little of the oil into a plastic cup or glass, then cup it in our hands to warm it up slightly, inhale deeply and enjoy what it smells like. After sniffing, we sip, swish like mouthwash, then clench our teeth and suck air through them and over the evoo. Then we wait to meet the flavour, which, of course, is mostly smell: tomato vines, unripe bananas, almonds, artichokes, cat pee, pear drops. Not that this is about getting anything right, just enjoying the waves of miraculous scent, and peppery tonsils.
As fun as tasting is, olive oil is a social substance that comes into its own in company: salad or, better still, warm vegetables, zig-zagged on soup, where all the scents we met before have a small party. As gorgeous as it is just so, it’s a myth that it can’t be heated, or cooked with. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just go slow, which is also the way to go with garlic when you make this week’s recipe for extra-virgin olive oil with spaghetti, tomatoes and anchovies.
Extra-virgin olive oil with spaghetti, tomato and anchovy
Prep 5 min
Cook 20 min
4-6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed for a milder flavour, or thinly sliced for a stronger one
1 x 400g tin whole plum tomatoes, drained of their juice
6 sweet cherry tomatoes, chopped (optional)
1 small piece dried red chilli, or 1 pinch dried red chilli flakes
4-8 anchovy fillets
Bring a large pan of water to a boil for the pasta. Working off the heat, put the oil in a large frying pan and add the garlic. Put the pan on a low heat so the olive oil and garlic warm gently, until the latter is very softly sizzling in a coat of bubbles.
Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as you put them in the pan, and chilli, raise the heat slightly and leave to bubble away while you cook the spaghetti.
Add salt to the boiling water, stir, add the pasta, stir again, glance at time and cook until al dente. When the pasta is almost cooked and the tomato thickening slightly, add the anchovies to the sauce and stir so they disintegrate.
Drain the pasta, saving some of the cooking water, or use tongs to lift it directly into the sauce pan, then stir or jolt the pan vigorously, adding a little cooking water if it seems at all stiff. Serve immediately.
This article was amended on 9 March 2021. Extra-virgin olive oil needs to have no more than 0.8% of free fatty acids, rather than over 0.8% of oleic acid as an earlier version said.