Not all olive oils are created equal. Not even all extra virgin olive oils are created equal. True, a drizzle of the golden liquid will spruce up a tangled bowl of spaghetti, but there's more to a bottle emblazoned with ''premium'', ''extra virgin'' and ''cold-pressed'' than meets the eye.
Now is a great time to buy the 2013 vintage of Australian extra virgin olive oil, which is usually made with unrefined pressed olives without using heat or chemicals. To find the best companions for chunks of sourdough and steaming bowls of pasta, we've scoured the top shelves for the best of the new season.
We went for Australian oils only, looking for recently pressed harvests. We assessed bitterness and pungency and compared fruitiness and acidity.
Green olives, which are not ripe, make better oil. Olives turn purple and then black as they age on the tree, so the best producers pick them green. When olives are picked green, they are usually bitter and pungent, and that's a good thing for oil. In Australia, green olives are usually shaken from their trees between March and June, making extra virgin oil from the 2013 harvest the freshest right now.
Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age and deteriorates quickly when exposed to sunlight, heat and oxygen. Newly pressed olive oil leaves the palate clean and tastes fresh and the best oil tastes peppery. Sipped neat, which is how we tested it, it can pack a powerful flavour. It's best consumed within three months after opening, and it's wise to check the harvest or use-by date on the bottle. Even the best olive oil should be kept no longer than two years.
Those cooks who swear off extra virgin oil for its inability to be heated to high temperatures can rest easy. Fresh extra virgin oil has a lower acidity than other olive oils, giving it a higher smoke point. This makes extra virgin good for cooking up to about 230 degrees. However, if it's not fresh, it can burn quickly.
Australian producers warn consumers to be wary of overseas-made products that get passed off as extra virgin oil. They say imports are sometimes blended with vegetable oil, and artificial colouring is added to make it look fresh. To be sure you get the freshest and best, taste some of this year's new-season oils and decide for yourself. Here are some the best (listed in order of preference on the day of tasting) to consider:
Max's Blend by Camilo
Bitter and pungent, with a complex aroma of green tomato and spicy black pepper. This is one of the most appealing, if intense, new-season olive oils tested. The oil has a clean flavour and the mouth is left feeling fresh. Boutique producer Camilo processes its own olives, and the crops of other growers, in south-western Victoria. The oil is exported; it won a gold medal at Olive Japan and a silver in April at the New York International olive oil competition. The oil has a mild avocado tilt, which is inspiration, perhaps, to drizzle it over the real thing, or a simple spaghetti with shavings of parmesan. Max is the grove's pet boxer dog.
Cobram Estate Australian Ultra Premium Hojiblanca Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This premium oil has a creamy palate with an aroma of tropical fruits. It's smooth, well balanced and lingers in the mouth. It has low levels of bitterness, missing that often-pleasing kick in the throat that some oils have. But it's a fragrant and complex oil that's pressed four hours after harvesting. This oil won a best-in-class award in New York. Perfect for dressing a salad or grilled vegetables.
Pukara Estate Premium Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Green bananas and freshly cut grass ooze from this premium and rather delicate oil. Little bitterness and pungency make it a good companion for roast meats and vegetables; it's not overpowering and enhances flavours.
The Olive Tree Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil - Fruity
When someone hands you a recipe for an olive oil polenta cake, use this oil to make it. With intense fruit flavour and mild bitterness, the oil can handle almost any companion. With sourdough and dukkah, it would sing. Sold at Aldi stores, this versatile oil is good value for money.
Cobram Estate Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil classic flavour intensity
Connoisseurs will mull over grassy notes and green bananas when tasting this classic oil. It presents a distinct flavour with moderate bitterness and a creamy aftertaste. It's a perfect everyday oil to use for grilling meat, roasting vegetables and drizzling over seafood.
Oasis Olives Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A tomato-and-fresh-basil bruschetta, seasoned with sea salt, would be crying out for a drizzle of this oil. Made using a blend of frantoio Tuscan olives, the fruit is grown in southern Australia and harvested early. The oil has a cut-grass and Granny Smith-apple aroma, with a pleasing peppery bite at the back of the throat. There's a lovely freshness that would do well over a leafy salad or steamed green vegetables.
Murphy Yetna Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The soft and delicate nature of this oil is due to the conditions in which the producer's trees are grown: plenty of sun, on river flats of rich red soil, in the mid-west of Western Australia. It has a tropical and floral bouquet, and a mild peppery finish. The producer guarantees the oil is single origin, from this pretty landscape. Oh, to be there, dunking chunks of grilled Italian bread into a saucer of this oil.
Macaw Creek Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This South Australian producer, with groves just north of Adelaide, does a chemical-free oil with a slightly cloudy consistency in the bottle. The green olives are cold-pressed the same day as the harvest. It has an intense cut-grass scent. The oil has plenty of antioxidants, a peppery kick that hits the back of the throat and a rich finish. Its low acidity makes it good for cooking. It's ideal doused over a seasoned steak before chargrilling, or drizzled over a thick slice of toasted sourdough.
Gwydir Grove Australian Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This creamy-flavoured oil has a more rounded slant with less complexity. It's the oil for those who like less oomph, are concerned about overpowering flavours and prefer only a slight peppery tickle in a premium oil. The grove, based near Moree in northern NSW, makes a low-acidity oil, so it's great for cooking because it's less likely to burn at higher temperatures. There's also a ''Family'' label for ''everyday use''.