By Lara Camozzo
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Rome
“It started as a bit of a game,” says Marco Oreggia, expert taster of olive oil and wine, when referring to his Guide to the World’s Best Extra Virgin Olive Oils. In 2001, Oreggia initiated an ambitious project that led to the creation of L’Extravergine, a series of books that aim to serve as a “complete and clear point of reference both for olive oil lovers and novices alike, and for those working in the sector: producers, importers, distributors, and technicians.”
Oreggia admits that, “In the beginning it was very hard to publicize the project.” After speaking with many producers of olive oil technology, he put together a list of farms and began contacting them one by one through email. “His strength was that he started very early, before quality extra virgin olive oil became trendy” boasts Laura Marinelli — journalist, expert olive oil taster, and Oreggia’s partner in both work and life. Oreggia goes on to explain that ten years ago people talked very little about oil, even in Italy. Most people were only interested in wine. “He’s a pioneer,” Marinelli says, “in Italian, lungimirante; he’s always looking ahead.”
In 2010, Oreggia changed the title and look of his L’Extravergine series in order to divide past from present; he is now the sole editor and publisher of Flos Olei, which is written in both Italian and English. “We wanted a title that didn’t need translation,” Oreggia explains, “Flos is Latin for fiore, or parte migliore — flower, or the best part — while Olei simply means, oil.” So we translate it as: The best oil.
The guide covers historical and cultural information as well as production data from 40 olive growing countries that include, but are not limited to, Spain and Italy, which are “sub-divided into regions and analyzed in detail,” France and other Mediterranean countries such as Croatia, Portugal, Slovenia and Morocco, and distant countries like Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. This year’s surprising newcomers were China, Japan and Brazil. The 2010 edition contains descriptions of 625 extra virgin olive oils from a total of 446 farms worldwide — 179 of these oils are recommended by an official panel of expert tasters coordinated by Oreggia himself, while only 20 were selected as the best in the world.
Each farm is given a numeric “Farm Ranking” between 0 and 100, based on all aspects of the production process including “the possession of olive trees and an oil mill; the quality of all oils recommended by the panel; the quality of production over the years — rising, falling, or steady — represented by an arrow symbol; and value for money.”
Symbols used to rank farms and olive oils include the traditional blue tasting cup signifying the oil as one of the best 20, a gold star indicating a “farm obtaining a score equal to or higher than 95/100,” a red heart for farms showing “special care and passion for its activity,” and other symbols for orchard layout, training systems of olive trees, harvesting and production methods, tasting category, and pricing.
Last year, fifty expert olive oil tasters, both men and women of all ages, tasted around 3000 samples submitted by 1200 to 1500 farms from all over the world. The tastings take place in Rome over a period of 4 to 5 months. The majority of the tasting panel members come from Italy, but some also travel from afar, for instance, Australia, Spain, and Japan. The tastings are anonymous and open for discussion — Oreggia only reveals the region that each sample has come from and the variety of olives that have been used. Expert tasters rotate 4 to 6 people at a time in two sessions — one in the morning and another in the afternoon. They base their analysis on the official tasting methods created by the International Olive Council (Consiglio Oleicolo Internazionale), an organization “set up in Madrid, Spain in 1959, by the United Nations.”
Serving on the panel is an extraordinary opportunity for the expert tasters because they have the rare chance to develop their palette by tasting thousands of olive oils from around the globe. There are 1300 existing olive varieties in the world; imagine the possibilities. “The way the tastings are organized isn’t for the tasters, but for the oil,” Oreggia says, as he points out that it’s important to begin with the lightest oils and then work towards medium fruity up to more intense fruity oils, much like one would go about tasting wine.
Oreggia explains that oil and wine are very different, “The tasting vocabulary used to describe the aromatic spectrum for oil is much simpler than for wine, however oil is much more complex to taste.” Therefore, on average, his panel can taste around 30 oils in each four hour session. It’s possible to taste 70 wines in that amount of time — more than double. It takes some very strong and experienced palettes to stand up to these tasting sessions, “Especially in the afternoon because after eating lunch it becomes much harder to analyze the organoleptic qualities of the oil.”
The U.S. has yet to produce an oil selected by the tasting panel, although Oreggia has received some submissions from farms in California. The problem, he says, isn’t with the quality of the oil, “There are good oils from California, and we’d like to get to know them better.” However, Oreggia attributes the small percentage of oil submissions from the U.S. to communication problems, “We have some difficulties with customs for example,” and ultimately he gets the impression that American oil producers sustain themselves sufficiently through a local market, and therefore don’t feel the need to expand internationally.
However, the farms that make it into Flos Olei have, to some extent, a payoff of worldwide recognition for their superb quality. Laura Marinelli explains that the guide is an excellent resource for international buyers who use the book in order to decide which oils to buy for resale in restaurants, wine bars, and stores. She adds, “Marco has great relations with importers and distributors who ask for his guidance in deciding which oils are the best in Italy and abroad.” To be clear, Oreggia says, “Our philosophy is the quality — we want to inform the consumer about the world’s best producers, helping him recognize excellence — it’s not important if it comes from Italy.”
In the future, Oreggia says he wants to be prepared for the demands of modernity, “Always aware of what is happening in the present and always looking ahead — stare al passo coi tempi,” or “staying ahead of the game.” For example, he realized that the book wasn’t selling in bookstores so he put it online and now sells almost entirely in this way. He also created an idea called, “Flos Olei Point,” where you can buy the book from restaurants, farms, or wine bars. It’s been a great success. They started out with 11,000 copies of the 2010 edition, and are now only left with 500 copies. Oreggia will be offering an electronic version of Flos Olei by November 2010. Readers will be able to download the guide directly from itunes to their ipod or iphone.
When asked who does the cooking at home, Laura points to Marco and says, “The kitchen is his playground.” Oreggia admits that he is an excellent pastry chef due to 10 years spent working alongside his father, head chef of their family owned restaurant, Girone VI, located in Rome. Il sesto girone refers to the sixth canto of the third circle of Dante’s inferno where the gluttonous are punished. A bit of a glutton himself, Oreggia enjoys experimenting with many different extra virgin olive oils and a large selection of wine. Laura can’t complain, “The first time I realized I was falling in love with him was when he cooked for me.” What did he prepare? Marco, who is wearing an expression of coy pride, says, “I made my carbonara.” Laura leans in as though to whisper a very well kept secret, and says with complete sincerity, “His carbonara is very special.”
After our interview, I joined Marco and Laura at Vinoforum, a wine tasting event dedicated to the best Italian and International producers, where they were “intruding” with an Oleoteca, or olive oil tasting bar. They walked me through the standard tasting process for the 2010 winning olive oil, Villa Magra of Frantoio Franci — a Tuscan blend of 50% Frantoio, 35% Moraiolo, and 15% Leccino. They showed me how to raise the temperature of the oil by placing one hand over the open top of a small blue cup — the color of the oil isn’t important in evaluating its quality — and twisting it back and forth in the palm of my other hand causing the molecules to release their organoleptic properties. After smelling the oil several times, I took a small sip and held it on my tongue like a spoon while sucking in and letting air pass over the oil.
Villa Magra received a Farm Ranking of 97/100, and is described as a “beautiful intense limpid golden yellow color with warm green hues. Its aroma is definite and strong, endowed with distinct vegetable hints of artichoke, wild chicory and sweet almond. Its taste is rotund and elegant, with a rich flavor of freshly mown grass and aromatic notes of mint, rosemary and black pepper. Bitterness is powerful and pungency is present and balanced. It would be ideal on octopus starters, chianina meat carpaccio with mushrooms, grilled radicchio, beans soups, first courses with bluefish, grilled swordfish, grilled game birds or animals, and hard mature cheese.” — Flos Olei 2010
More information can be found on Marco Oreggia’s website.
For those interested in Villa Magra dei Franci, visit their website here.