Types of Spanish Olive Oil

Spain has the most varied selection of olive oils of any country in the world. With at least twenty D.O. (Denominacion de Origen) growing areas and some 250 olive varieties Spanish olive oil offers a wide range of flavours to choose from: mild and nutty through to assertive fruitiness and bitter almond aftertaste.

The quality of Spanish olive oil has been revolutionized over the last 25 years, with the emphasis moving from quantity to quality, and now Spain produces is a huge selection of top quality extra virgin olive oils certified by the International Olive Oil Council (I.O.O.C).

Extra virgin olive oil (Aceite de Oliva Virgen Extra) must be pressed by mechanical rather than chemical means and have an acidity level of less than 0.8%. It is also tasted for flavour before being certified by the I.O.O.C.

Fine or Virgin Olive Oil (Aceite de Oliva Fino) has an acidity of less than 2%. It often uses slighter riper olives. Olive oils with the low acidity of extra virgin but which haven’t passed the official taste test also fall into this category.

Ordinary Olive Oil (Aceite de Oliva) can be up to 3.3% but is usually used to produce refined oils with a bland flavour. Any oil with acidity levels above this are not considered fit for human consumption. The acidity levels are a laboratory measure of the rancidity rather than of the flavour.

Pomace Oil (Aceite de Orujo) is processed from the paste left after the first pressing. It is generally quite flavourless and of low quality, usually only used for deep frying.

The flavour of extra virgin olive oil varies incredibly according to the types of olives used. The principal olive varieties used are the Picual, Hojiblanca, Lechin, Verdial, Picudo, Cornicabra, Empeltre and Arbequina. An oil can be pressed from a blend of several different varieties or from just one. The olive combinations and proportions that go into the best oils tend to be a closely guarded secret only known to the producer.

The Picual olive accounts for 50% of the olive oil produced in Spain. The oil has a fresh flavour and plenty of body and works well in salads and raw soups. It is a very healthy oil with a high level of monounsaturated fat and is also high in natural antioxidants. This makes it the preferred choice in Spain for the deep frying of many delicacies at 180C, as it can reach higher temperatures without hitting its flash point. It is often blended with Picudo and Hojiblanca olives to make a fruity assertive oil with plenty of flavour.

Oil from the Hojiblanca olive has an initial sweetness followed by a slightly bitter almond aftertaste, which the Spaniards prefer. It is excellent for frying, baking and casseroles.

The Cornicabra is a very stable oil with a high level of monounsaturated fats. It has a sweet, fruity flavour with a velvety feel and slight bitterness. It is generally reserved for fine oils as the olives must be carefully hand picked.

The Empeltre olive produces a smooth, fruity, quite sweet flavour with no bitterness. It is often used to blend with other stronger flavoured olives that have a more bitter flavour. Its mildness makes it ideal for mayonnaise and for salad dressings.

The Arbequina olive is the main variety in Catalonia and it gives a pleasant nutty flavour to the oil with a slight bitterness that is popular in Spain. It is rich in polyunsaturated fats and should be carefully stored to retain optimum quality.