Tasting Olive Oil

Olive Oil Sommelier Course Debuts in New York

The groundbreaking olive oil sensory assessment program at the International Culinary Center seeks to turn out expert olive oil tasters. Participants of the first level course agreed they're well on their way.

Oct. 19, 2016
By Wendy Logan

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Olive oil pro­duc­ers, dis­trib­u­tors, retail­ers, chefs, jour­nal­ists, qual­ity con­trol pro­fes­sion­als and food­ies from across the globe con­verged on New York’s International Culinary Center October 8 to 10 to par­tic­i­pate in an inno­v­a­tive, world-class pro­gram focused on extra virgin olive oil qual­ity. The sold-out Olive Oil Sommelier Certification Program launched the first in a com­pre­hen­sive, three-part series of courses designed to cover pro­duc­tion, qual­ity man­age­ment, and advanced sen­sory assess­ment of the prized com­mod­ity that con­tin­ues its per­pet­ual rise in gas­tron­omy, cul­ture and health.

Hailing from the U.S and as far afield as New Zealand, Greece, and Canada, 40 would-be olive oil som­me­liers spent three days in inten­sive study with a fac­ulty of renowned experts in the var­i­ous dis­ci­plines that an under­stand­ing of this com­plex prod­uct com­prises. The instruc­tors included one of the world’s lead­ing experts on chemosen­sory sci­ence; a judg­ing panel leader; an ole­ol­o­gist; an award-win­ning miller; New York’s top-rated chef, nutri­tion­ists, and jour­nal­ists.

While the par­tic­i­pants’ prior level of knowl­edge on the topic varied with their pro­fes­sional back­grounds, a broad sam­pling of their indi­vid­ual assess­ments of the course showed remark­able con­sis­tency. Not only did the stu­dents feel their level of knowl­edge had been raised sub­stan­tially, but most went on to state with empha­sis that the class would have a sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive effect on their busi­nesses, their crafts, and their sales. More than a few said they had been thor­oughly inspired.

David Sullivan, an olive grower and pro­ducer of extra virgin olive oil for New Zealand’s Mahurangi Olives Ltd., part of the Matakana Olive Cooperative, was among the enthu­si­asts. “The qual­ity of pre­sen­ters, their knowl­edge and pas­sion were excel­lent. Having experts present and coach us as we learned how to eval­u­ate EVOO has given me a much greater under­stand­ing of how to apply sen­sory eval­u­a­tion tech­niques to pro­duc­tion,” he said.

Small-scale EVOO pro­ducer Gregory Diharce from Zakynthos Island, Greece, con­curred. “Part of the expe­ri­ence that was so enjoy­able was the pas­sion our instruc­tors expressed. They men­tioned sev­eral times that it’s impor­tant to edu­cate so we can change the per­cep­tion of olive oil. No ques­tion, every­one left feel­ing the same sen­ti­ment.”

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The expan­sion of edu­ca­tion on this bur­geon­ing topic has been long cham­pi­oned by the pro­gram’s exec­u­tive direc­tor, Curtis Cord, who devel­oped the frame­work for the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion course with the late Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder of the International Culinary Center. Cord is the pub­lisher of Olive Oil Times, and the found­ing pres­i­dent of the New York International Olive Oil Competition.

The Olive Oil Sommelier Certification Program is jointly pro­duced by the International Culinary Center and the Olive Oil Times Education Lab which sup­ports projects that foster a greater under­stand­ing of olive oil through col­lab­o­ra­tive ini­tia­tives with part­ner orga­ni­za­tions.

“Dorothy under­stood the impor­tance of olive oil in cul­ture and gas­tron­omy and while so many cook­ing schools and culi­nary lead­ers still seem ambiva­lent to this topic, Dorothy was not,” Cord said as he addressed the atten­dees at the begin­ning of the pro­gram. “Her lead­er­ship and encour­age­ment were vital to the culi­nary land­scape. And even with olive oil, she was instru­men­tal in our devel­op­ment of the New York olive oil com­pe­ti­tion launched here in her school five years ago.

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“But we knew there was more we needed to do, and first and fore­most Dorothy was an edu­ca­tor. Today’s course is the first step toward real­iz­ing that vision we shared, which is to foster a greater under­stand­ing of this food that has been a part of our cul­tural and culi­nary her­itage for thou­sands of years.”

By its very exis­tence, par­tic­i­pants in the level-one course stated, this new avenue for the advance­ment of knowl­edge and exper­tise on olive oil qual­ity opens the field of study to new hori­zons.

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“This course com­pletely took things to the next level,” said John Canevari, owner of The Blue Olive in Pawling, New York. “The depth and expos­i­tory nature of the pro­gram pro­vided a whole new expe­ri­ence. Let me just say this: The course mate­r­ial was dead on point, the instruc­tion was extra­or­di­nary, the sen­sory work was eye-open­ing, and the col­lab­o­ra­tion was invig­o­rat­ing.”

Pablo Voitzuk

“I did not know what to expect,” said Michael Favuzzi, owner of a Canadian-based import­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing com­pany who said he plans to send his staff to future courses. It seemed, he said, that Cord and his fac­ulty had been teach­ing the class for years. “I was seri­ously impressed and I can’t believe it’s the first time they have done such a work­shop.”

Salvatore Russo-Tiesi is the man­ag­ing direc­tor of Bono USA, a sub­sidiary of Bono SAS based on Sicily. The com­pany is a lead­ing man­u­fac­turer of extra virgin olive oil in Southern Italy, its Bono 100% Organic Blend and Bono PDO Val di Mazara EVOOs both gold medal win­ners at the 2016 New York International Olive Oil Competition. Tiesi echoed Favuzzi’s sen­ti­ment noting, “the pro­gram was excep­tional.”

NYIOOC panel leader Carola Dümmer Medina, the renowned taster and expert in Southern Hemisphere olive oils flew in from Chile to illus­trate the diverse cul­ti­vars and taste pro­files of New World oils as she walked the class through sample after sample offer­ing expert guid­ance with each analy­sis.

Oleologist Nicholas Coleman, a former NYIOOC taste panel judge and co-founder of Grove and Vine has taught olive oil courses for Zagat’s master class series, Bon Appetit, The Institute for Culinary Education, and New York and Columbia Universities.

Carola Dümmer Medina

“In addi­tion to iden­ti­fy­ing defects, we com­piled fifty world-class oils from Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, California, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa,” Coleman noted. “The goal was to offer an unpar­al­leled edu­ca­tional expe­ri­ence for atten­dees to learn about the aromas, fla­vors and tex­tures of the world’s finest olive oils.”

Those fifty oils were curated from the vast library of sub­mis­sions to the New York International Olive Oil Competition which is likely the single largest col­lec­tion of high-qual­ity olive oils any­where in the world. The cross-sec­tion of inter­na­tional olive oils stood out as a major bonus to par­tic­i­pants for the sen­sory eval­u­a­tion com­po­nents of the course.

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Monell Chemical Senses Center pres­i­dent Gary Beauchamp illus­trated the fun­da­men­tals of sen­sory sci­ence and his dis­cov­ery of oleo­can­thal; award-win­ning California pro­ducer Pablo Voitzuk of Pacific Sun Farms con­nected pro­duc­tion processes with the sen­sory char­ac­ter­is­tics they affect; Albert Einstein College of Medicine nutri­tion­ist Keith Ayoob pro­vided insights into the real-world health ben­e­fits of EVOO and master mer­chant Steve Jenkins chimed in with what he had learned from 35 years of sell­ing qual­ity olive oils to New Yorkers. Cord dis­cussed olive oil grades, inter­na­tional stan­dards and enforce­ment, and he framed each ses­sion over the three days within a con­tin­u­ous story pro­vid­ing con­text and com­men­tary through­out.

The James Beard “Best Chef in New York” winner, Mark Ladner of Del Posto cooked Italian regional spe­cial­ties for the class to demon­strate how a prop­erly paired extra virgin oil can ele­vate the tastes of dishes to new heights. (He used Roi Cru Gaaci Taggiasca from Liguria for a pesto pasta, Frantoio Franci Villa Magra Grand Cru Frantoio from Tuscany on a steak and Mandranova Nocellara for gelato.)

Russo-Tiesi expressed what many reported fol­low­ing the three-day work­shop. “I was able to learn a lot about oils from the Southern Hemisphere and to com­pare and con­trast them with those from the Northern Hemisphere which were per­haps more rec­og­niz­able. It was very diverse, very well-rounded.” And for those like Russo-Tiesi, who came to the class to obtain a bal­ance between an exist­ing exper­tise in the pro­duc­tion, com­mer­cial or culi­nary side of olive oil and sen­sory skills, “This course allowed my palate to catch up to the tech­ni­cal side of my knowl­edge.”

Chek Mark Ladner with Nicholas Coleman

Not all who attended the som­me­lier course came armed with the exten­sive expe­ri­ence of millers and pro­duc­ers. Jackie Dougherty, owner of City2Shore Gourmet out of south­ern New Jersey works with Italian pro­duc­ers in Spoletto, Italy and now pro­duces her own brand of EVOO. She said she had just begun to scratch the sur­face of the infor­ma­tion offered by the course, but that the instruc­tors were respon­sive to ques­tions and sug­ges­tions from those more in the inter­me­di­ate cat­e­gory. “I learned so much, it’s amaz­ing. I’m still pro­cess­ing it all.” Since she has returned from the course, she has taken action to con­tinue her edu­ca­tion.

Sometimes Dougherty found that she had no points of ref­er­ence in her own expe­ri­ence for cer­tain descrip­tions of tastes and fra­grances iden­ti­fied by the instruc­tors. For exam­ple, “I didn’t know what a green almond smelled like. So what I’ve done since return­ing is to start a sen­sory library,” she said, heed­ing the advice of instruc­tors to work on the devel­op­ment of an inter­nal sen­sory cat­a­log that takes time and com­mit­ment. Dougherty said she plans to source herbs and spices, veg­eta­bles, even tea com­monly asso­ci­ated with EVOO flavor pro­files to absorb and reg­is­ter them in her mind and palate.

“My brother lives in California next to almond coun­try, so I asked him to send me some green almond leaves.” She’s also con­tin­u­ing her explo­ration of the var­i­ous cul­ti­vars, their ori­gins, common denom­i­na­tors, and vari­ables. She said of the class, “I loved it. The course intro­duces you to a level of exper­tise I can’t wait to have.”

Level One of the Olive Oil Sommelier Certification Program will be offered again February 4 – 6, fol­lowed imme­di­ately by the advanced levels February 7 – 10 and those who may have missed the first series will likely have to be quick on the draw if they plan to reg­is­ter. The first one sold out in just a few weeks.

Said Canevari, “I walked away not only con­vinced about my con­tin­u­a­tion to the advanced courses, but with a whole new level of aware­ness and recog­ni­tion of my desire to work in this dis­ci­pline, and a more pro­found appre­ci­a­tion of EVOOs. Curtis Cord put together a remark­able pro­gram and I cannot wait for the next rounds.”