Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the olive oil tin
We started Oliveology at Borough Market 10 years ago this year, when it was still pretty hard to find really good quality Greek ingredients in London. At the beginning, we were just a small stall with a table and umbrella and a little olive oil. Now we sell a range of different oils, various beautiful honey products, fresh olives, wild oregano and more, all housed in a cute unit in Three Crown Square.
I was born in Athens, but I spent most of my summers in the Peloponnese, where my mother is from. I came to London to study industrial packaging and product design. My friends and I missed the kind of food and ingredients that we had taken for granted at home, so whenever we went back in holiday periods, we would return with a suitcase full of olive oil, honey and oregano. I guess that sowed the seeds for what I do now!
Our signature product is a range of organic extra virgin olive oil, all pressed from one variety of olives (koroneiki), which are all grown on one estate in Sparta, Greece.
Olive oil is like wine: there are so many different flavour profiles and characteristics. Variables include the variety of olive, also the quality of the olive, the farm and weather.
Single variety olives
But it’s also down to the age of the olive, when they are harvested, and the temperature at which the oil has been extracted. By using single estate, single variety olives, we can explore some of these things and we have found there are amazingly different results.
We package all of our oils in a traditional Greek-style tin-plate can. On those tins, we note the temperature that the oil was extracted. I think the cans and the branding on them probably reflect both my Greek heritage and my design background.
In Greece, we store many things in these rectangular cuboid tin-plate cans: olive oil, olives, feta. The packaging we use for our olive oil is based on that classic container.
We sell olive oil in three different volumes: 350ml, 750ml and five litres. We developed the little cans because they reflect what customers prefer to use and buy, but back in Greece, everyone would just use the five-litre versions, and decant the oil bit by bit into a stainless steel pourer. People in the Mediterranean use significantly more olive oil than people in Britain—I doubt our small tins would last a small family even a week!
I like the way they look, because it’s traditional, but I also like it because this is an environmentally efficient way to package our oil: the light weight and square shape ensures it’s much better than glass bottles in terms of transporting and storage. It’s also easier to recycle.
Crucially, the tin-plate containers are also the best way to store olive oil. Light is the biggest enemy of olive oil—when it’s stored in a glass bottle, it is exposed to light, which removes nutrients, health properties, flavour and makes it turn rancid faster. This is not a problem with enclosed tin-plate cans.
The number-led branding is important to me too. The numbers we use—17, 18, 21, 22, 27—denote the temperature that the oil within the can has been extracted. I have found the graphic helps us to explain how different temperatures can lead to an extraordinary range of flavour.
Everyone has heard about ‘cold-pressed’ oil, but many don’t really know what it means; it means the olives have been extracted at a temperature under 27C. Most supermarket olive oil is extracted at a much higher temperature, because the yield is greater. But heat also kills nutrients, lowers health benefits and destroys flavour. In contrast, the colder the temperature, the less the yield, but greater the quality.
Range of flavours
Wherever you come from you associate flavour with memories. I would never say Greek oil is the only oil you should have, or that it’s better than Spanish or Italian. You should have different oils for different uses and moments. But I do love Greek olive oil, and love that our oils show there can be a range of flavours from just one variety.
Of course I don’t have a favourite. They’re all like my babies, with their own characteristics. If pushed, I would probably choose the 21, because the olives are also pressed with walnuts, rosemary and fennel. The flavour is so good, and it’s unique.