`On the Rise: Olive Oil Tastings in the U.K.

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On the Rise: Olive Oil Tastings in the U.K.

Jan. 13, 2014
By Will Noble

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Neal’s Yard, Lon­don

Not ten years ago, many in the UK would have scoffed at the notion of swill­ing olive oil around their palate. Beer, wine, whisky and cheese have long inspired epi­curean taste buds in Britain. But to line up a selec­tion of ten vari­eties of pressed olive oil seemed a tast­ing ses­sion too far. Oil, after all, was for cook­ing — not for con­sum­ing straight. All that has changed. Thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of cook­ery shows, the inter­net, and increas­ing avail­abil­ity of qual­ity olive oil, Britons now want to com­pre­hend and express the magic behind the prod­uct.

One might for­give the UK for being slow off the mark. The cli­mate of this exposed island nation does­n’t lend itself to olive cul­ti­va­tion. It’s true that the Romans intro­duced olive oil to the Britons many cen­turies ago, although accord­ing to Stu­art Jef­fries in The Guardian, it proved about as appeal­ing to the local pop­u­la­tion as wear­ing togas and open-toed san­dals.” His­tor­i­cally, but­ter was invari­ably used on bread, while veg­etable oil and slabs of white lard were used for cook­ing. The con­cept of driz­zling oil over sal­ads and bread would have raised eye­brows.

It took until the early 1990s for olive oil to make its first vis­i­ble impact on British eat­ing habits. From that point, a steady rise in its con­sump­tion is recorded; between 1990 and 2009, the UK’s share of the world con­sump­tion of olive oil rose from 1.9 per­cent to 2.9 per­cent as celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, Nigella Law­son and Gor­don Ram­sey have inspired the UK to go for olive oil. So too has the pro­lif­er­a­tion of olive prod­uct out­lets, phys­i­cal and online. Today, says The Food and Drink Inno­va­tion Net­work, the UK con­sumes 28 mil­lion liters of olive oil per year and half of UK house­holds now use olive oil.

Despite the con­sis­tent rise of olive oil con­sump­tion, much of it is used for cook­ing, or for blend­ing with other ingre­di­ents. But a few pio­neers are teach­ing Brits how to assess an oil and to appre­ci­ate ori­gins, vari­eties, com­plex aro­mas and tastes. Judy Ridge­way has writ­ten four books on olive oil, includ­ing Judy Ridg­way’s Best Olive Oil Buys Round The World. Ever enthu­si­as­tic to spread her knowl­edge of olive oil, Ridg­way leads reg­u­lar tast­ing and appre­ci­a­tion ses­sions in Lon­don and Brighton. Michael North, a.k.a. The Olive Oil Man’ is another pro­po­nent. Mem­bers of North’s Sea­sonal Fresh Olive Oil Mem­bers Club enjoy fresh oils, painstak­ingly selected by North him­self.

Writ­ings on olive oil tast­ings is becom­ing com­mon­place in the UK too. National pub­li­ca­tions such as The Guardian and The Inde­pen­dent are eager to tell UK read­ers the Ten Best Olive Oils, and How to tell if your olive oil is the real thing’. The Olive World Almanac – con­tain­ing tast­ing notes, olive vari­etal descrip­tives, recipes and more – is updated every har­vest, and has become some­thing of a bible for UK oil afi­ciona­dos.

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Today’s British food lover is far less likely to be fobbed off by infe­rior olive oil than they would have been less than a decade ago. And Brits were notably vocal dur­ing the pub­lic out­cry against the EU’s short-lived ban on unmarked olive oil jugs on restau­rant tables. For the first time in its his­tory, the UK can claim to hold a gen­uine flame for qual­ity olive oil in its purest form.

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