Throughout the Mediterranean, olive oil is so much a part of culinary life its absence from the daily diet would be unthinkable. Two thousand years ago olive oil was held in such esteem by the Romans that they called it olio santo, ‘sacred oil’, and to this day Italy is widely regarded as the place where the finest olive oil is produced - something that we all now rather take as read. However, a substantial percentage of olive oil exported from Italy is in fact sourced by the Italians from Spain and Greece, so an Italian label may not be everything it suggests.
The large-scale importation of olive oil into this country means we are able to buy a selection of good oils in any supermarket. Not that long ago, however, olive oil was something you only bought in Boots the Chemist, to treat earache or to rub into sore muscles. Indeed, as recently as 20 years ago the majority of us had never tasted olive oil and found the idea of its widespread use in cooking little short of repugnant - as package-holidaymakers returning from the Mediterranean made clear.
Flavoured olive oils are now growing in popularity, though some additions work better than others. There are good arguments not to make garlic oil, for example, since the principal joy of garlic is the pungency of its fresh, just-peeled state. When old, it develops a rancid, stale taste. The best flavoured oil is undoubtedly that infused with white truffles; the nastiest with lemons, which taste - oddly in this context - of soap. It is still fun to experiment with flavouring oils at home. However, when adding raw organic solids to oil you will find that while the process of decomposition is slowed by the absence of oxygen it is not stopped completely.
One flavoured oil that is worth making is still referred to as olio santo in Tuscany, the home of much of Italy’s finest olive oil production. This can be used for frying to add spice to your cooking or simply added by the spoonful to chicken broth at the table, as is done there.