Arbiters of Taste

By Lara Camozzo
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Florence

Arbiters of Taste | Olive Oil Times

Although olive oil tasting dates back to Roman times, it wasn’t until 1983 that the National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters founded the world’s first olive oil tasting school in the province of Imperia, located along the crystalline Mediterranean coastline in the region of Liguria. Along with a group of long time tasters from over 250 local olive oil enterprises, the Imperian Chamber of Commerce brought the idea into fruition “with the commitment to defend, enhance and safeguard the important technical and cultural heritage represented by the art of tasting olive oil.”

The technical, qualifying and refresher courses offered by “ONAOO” Organizzazione Nazionale Assaggiatori di Olio d’Oliva provide its members with a unique experience, not only because they have bragging rights for attending the first school of its kind, but also because “people who come to our school find olive oil from all over the world,” director Fabrizio Vignolini says. He goes on to explain that, “ONAOO is dedicated to being completely open towards the Mediterranean and extra-Mediterranean production areas, because to become a good taster you must have extensive knowledge of the sensory characteristics of all types of olive oil —  and that includes oil from South Africa, Turkey, Greece, Chile, California, and so on.”

Arbiters of Taste | Olive Oil Times

Marcello Scoccia

The members themselves are also scattered throughout the planet, many having attended programs offered by ONAOO abroad. As Vignolini says, “We’ve held courses in Japan, Brazil, and Morocco just to name a few, and we have members from Chile, Ecuador and even two coming from Tunisia to attend our next technical tasting course in June.” While it’s a national organization, “It’s becoming international,” agrees Vice President Marcello Scoccia, head of the tasting panel since 1999. He got his start working with olive oil on a farm in Imperia at the age of 22 and went on to become a “Master of Olive Oil” at the Universita degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche, the Slow Food University in Colorno.

Since its inception, more than 5000 people have come to ONAOO to become expert olive oil tasters. Recently they have seen an increase in a younger generation of students — some are journalists, some work on farms, many are chefs, and then there are those who just have a passionate interest in the golden good stuff.  “It’s important to teach young people about the art of tasting olive oil in order to maintain our culture and the condition for a good future,” Vignolini says. Many young chefs are taking an interest in cooking with top quality ingredients, including olive oil. “Cooking with olive oil is like pairing wine with a meal” Scoccia says. “To create good food it’s important to have good ingredients,” but, Vignolini admits, “not all chefs take an interest in the criteria of choosing their extra virgin olive oil.”

ONAOO aims to promote the culture of tasting olive oil because “It’s important that consumers know the product — how to choose, use, and conserve it,” Vignolini explains. “First, it’s most important to know if the olive oil has defects or not, then you can analyze the organoleptic characteristics” he says. Positive qualities such as the levels of spicy heat, bitterness, fresh grassy flavors or sweet almond notes depend not only on the terroir, but also on the human capacity to select the correct olive varieties for their environmental conditions. Olive oil is a versatile and complex expression of man, “More so than wine,” Vignolini argues. “From the correct ripeness to the time of picking, to transforming and crushing — this process must be as short, as clean, and as precise as possible in order to squeeze out the best of the fruit.”

Arbiters of Taste | Olive Oil Times

The Tasting Lab

During the five day technical course for aspiring olive oil tasters, participants are introduced to the official method of tasting, and cover every phase of production from the technological process of harvesting, to cultivating and transforming the olives into oil. Upon completing the 35 hour course and passing the final tasting panel tests, participants receive a Certificate of Physiological Suitability for tasting, and are eligible to register with the National List of Technicians and Experts in extra virgin and virgin olive oils. ONAOO also offers a 5 day technical-practical course that focuses on cultivation techniques to “increase yield, cut costs, and improve oil quality,” and if that’s not enough to prepare members to grow and harvest their own olive oil, a four day course for olive-mill owners and technicians is also available.

Together vice president Scoccia and director Vignolini have written an olive oil tasting manual, as well as a guide to extra virgin olive oils in Italy and all over the world in collaboration with oil specialist and author, Luigi Caricato, titled “OLIO puro succo d’oliva.”

Arbiters of Taste | Olive Oil Times

OLIO puro succo d’oliva

“We hope to continue spreading ONAOO throughout the world; to create a universal appreciation for olive oil which, at the moment, makes up only 3.4% of all vegetable oil consumption.” Vignolini says. It’s a demanding task that depends on the modification of courses offered by ONAOO in keeping up with the evolution of olive oil over time.

Every year members of ONAOO are invited to attend “Tasting & Talking,” a meeting which encourages a world wide understanding of the complexities of olive oil. After tasting an endless amount of diverse olive oils from all over the world, Vignolini has yet to find a favorite, saying, “Olive oil is produced even where it doesn’t grow naturally, like in Japan. So I’m always curious to try new olive oils, because in every part of the world I can find olive oil of great quality. It’s impossible to ever say that I’ve become an expert olive oil taster, because every time I taste a new oil, I find something new.”

Therein lies the beauty of olive oil; it’s constantly changing and adapting over time, all the while bringing people together who share a common bond and passion for sustaining its rich history and culture.

Photos: Lara Camozzo for Olive Oil Times

Organizzazione Nazionale Assaggiatori di Olio d’Oliva
Via Tommaso Schiva n. 29
Imperia, Italy 18100
Tel. +39 0183 767412
oliveoil.org

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This article was last updated May 24, 2013 - 10:09 AM (GMT-5)