William Skidelsky ignores olive oil labels

When it comes to olive oil, ignore the labels and follow your taste buds

Many people live in a state of some confusion when it comes to olive oil. Food writers encourage us to believe that only the best - and most expensive - varieties will do, but the evidence of our taste buds doesn't always justify such preciousness. Most £4 supermarket varieties seem adequate, so why bother with something more expensive? The belief that we "should" consume high-grade olive oil stems in part from our culture's idealisation of all things Mediterranean - it goes with dreaming about that second home in Tuscany. Yet the quality of olive oil consumed in Italy varies hugely.

High-grade olive oil, it is also claimed, has significant health benefits - and here, perhaps, the foodies have a point. Olive oil classification is notoriously hazy. The tags virgin and extra-virgin (awarded on the basis of acidity) are supposed to apply only to oils produced from the first and second pressings. But, increasingly, manufacturers are finding ways to tamper with the acidity of oil so that even oils that have been extracted from later pressings can be made to qualify as virgin and extra virgin.

None the less, I don't believe one needs to be too fussy. For most purposes, modestly priced supermarket bottles are fine. The one I buy most often is made by Filippo Berio. Usually costing £3.99 for a 75cl bottle, it's got quite a strong olive flavour, and is therefore good in salad dressings, where you want the oil to have some bite. Tesco's own-brand extra virgin is also pleasant, though milder - it's good for roasting vegetables.

Where single-estate varieties come into their own is in the field of drizzling. Although "drizzling" has become a byword for a certain kind of pretentious foodie excess, it is actually an incredibly useful technique. A spot of drizzling can transform all manner of things - boiled vegetables, soups, grilled fish.

As with wine, choosing olive oil ultimately comes down to personal taste. The best approach is to go somewhere that allows customers to taste before buying, as it is only by tasting oils alongside each other that you gain a sense of how they differ - the way, for example, that some are peppery and aggressive, while others are more grassy and sweet.

I have recently come across two single-estate olive oils that I like very much - Nunez de Prado (£9.25 per 500ml), from the Spanish food shop Brindisa in Exmouth Market, London EC1 (www.brindisa. com); and Adamo (£7.30 per 500ml), from the Pugliese olive oil stall at Borough Market, SE1. The Adamo has a really smooth, almond flavour - it would be good drizzled over foods with a delicate flavour, such as fish. The Nunez, from southern Spain, is even more impressive: its initially grassy aroma gives way to something stranger and more complex - I can't say what exactly, but I know that I like it.

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