A box arrived in the mail a few days before the lesson. Inside there were 10 small plastic bottles, each marked with a number and filled with oil. There was a glossary of olive oil tasting terms on International Olive Council letterhead, and 10 plastic cups bearing the logo of the L’ Organizzazione Nazionale Assaggiatori Olio di Oliva (National Association of Olive Oil Tasters) — Italy’s venerable school for those training to be experts in olive oil sensory analysis.
The lesson was held at 3:30 PM in Milan, or 9:30 in the morning in New York. When the Skype call came, I clicked on the answer button and was face to face with four other students in various places around Europe, and Fabrizio Vignolini, ONAOO’s director.
Vignolini began by explaining that the school was the oldest of its kind. It would have to be, I thought, to get such an enviable domain name, oliveoil.org — an address a certain Madrid-based organization probably wouldn’t mind having.
The introduction was brief and we quickly turned to working our way through the oils. This was not a course on olive oil appreciation — it was a session to help participants identify the positive and negative attributes in olive oil samples.
It’s an important charge. If more people knew how to tell the difference between an extra virgin olive oil and one pretending to be, it would raise the bar for retailers and producers.
When the instructor asked the group to proceed with the next oil there were loud slurps that shook my computer speakers, as at least one participant kept his headset microphone next to his mouth while he airated the oil (no names, let’s just say he was from England). I kept my mic muted until it was my turn to speak.
With each tasting the instructor would ask us to share our perceptions. In the beginning there was wide disagreement with some saying an oil was defective and others saying it was nice. I couldn’t help feel a small advantage — for me only, it was still morning and my palate was at its daily best. Toward the last samples, the group nodded in agreement with each perception of citrus, grass, almond, hay and acetone.
Vignolini would not say if an oil was good or bad, he would only confirm the positive attributes and defects his panel of expert tasters found in the sample, and whether it would be considered extra virgin, virgin or lampante. Of course those of us taking the course didn’t feel so bound and we freely shared with the group whether we liked it or not.
Sometimes imbalance was mistaken for a defect. One oil made from a local Sicilian variety was very bitter, but I didn’t find much fruitiness. Vignolini explained that an oil exhibiting such an imbalance, while it might not win an international award, was nevertheless free of any defects that would disqualify its extra virgin status.
That made me think how some Sicilians might like it that way. What we perceive as imbalanced might work nicely with local dishes, perfected over generations to harness a regional oil’s bitter overload.
Like most other olive oil tastings I’ve been to, this one ended on a bad note: The last oil was the one chosen to give the group a solid sense of rancidity.
For around 250 dollars Vignolini’s Skype lesson gives you two hours with one of the world’s most important experts in olive oil sensory assessment. Retailers, food service pros and anyone who wants to know more about the tastes found in good and bad olive oils should belly up to the monitor and take this course.
You can register for the Skype course on olive oil tasting or the 5-day technical course in Imperia, Italy here.