`An Introduction to Olive Oil Tasting

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An Introduction to Olive Oil Tasting

Nov. 3, 2010
Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne

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Olive oil qual­ity has been promi­nent in the news recently, with head­lines telling us that our extra vir­gin olive oil might not really be extra vir­gin.

A pall of sus­pi­cion has been cast over the kitchen cup­board; how are we to know if that pretty bot­tle of olive oil has been lying about its extra vir­gin sta­tus? What’s a con­sumer to do?

It is true that there is some seri­ous hanky panky going on in the ranks of extra vir­gin olive oil. The issues of adul­ter­ation, mis­la­bel­ing and reg­u­la­tion are all real, com­plex and very impor­tant.

That does not mean, how­ever, that there is no hope for olive oil con­sumers until all these big issues are resolved. On the con­trary, by learn­ing a lit­tle, con­sumers can ben­e­fit a lot.

The log­i­cal place for an olive oil edu­ca­tion to start is with tast­ing. All the read­ing in the world isn’t going to mean a thing unless you can con­nect it to the sen­sory expe­ri­ence — the aroma and taste of olive oil.

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Pro­fes­sional olive oil tasters sip the oil straight from lit­tle blue glasses that look like votive can­dle-hold­ers from your favorite café. Although ulti­mately we must remem­ber that olive oil is an ingre­di­ent in food, tast­ing it straight does have the advan­tage of giv­ing you a com­pletely undis­guised taste of the oil.

Don’t be scared. A lit­tle sip of olive oil won’t hurt you — it’s actu­ally very nice once you get used to the idea — and it will help you learn to rec­og­nize char­ac­ter­is­tics with­out the com­pli­ca­tion of other fla­vors.

The aro­mas of olive oil are a crit­i­cal part of its fla­vor. The best way to appre­ci­ate them is to pour a lit­tle bit of olive oil (a table­spoon or two) into a small wine­glass (or nifty blue tast­ing glass if you have it).

Cup the glass in one hand and cover it with the other to trap the aro­mas inside while you warm it up. Hold it, swirl it, warm it for a minute or two. Then stick your nose into the glass and take a good whiff of the aroma or nose” of the olive oil.

You may notice the smell of fresh-cut grass, cin­na­mon, trop­i­cal fruits or other aro­mas of ripe or green olive fruit. This is a good time to point out that the word fruity” in olive oil can refer to veg­etable notes, i.e. green olive fruit, as well as to ripe fruit notes. So think of arti­chokes, grass and herbs as fruit” when you taste olive oils!

Now take a sip of the oil. Don’t be too wimpy about it; if you don’t get a decent amount you won’t appre­ci­ate all the qual­i­ties of the oil because it is only get­ting on the tip of your tongue. You ide­ally want to get the impres­sions of the entire mouth and tongue.

Suck air through the oil to coax more aro­mas out of it, and then — this is impor­tant — close your mouth and breathe out through your nose. This retronasal” per­cep­tion will give you a whole bunch of other fla­vor notes. Retronasal per­cep­tion is pos­si­ble because your mouth con­nects to your nose in the back. Now swal­low some or all of the oil.

Pun­gency is a pep­pery sen­sa­tion, detected in the throat, so swal­low­ing some oil is impor­tant. Pun­gency is a pos­i­tive char­ac­ter­is­tic of olive oil. It is a chem­i­cal irri­ta­tion, like the hot­ness of chilies, and equally appeal­ing once you get used to it.

Once you start to get into that spicy kick, it is hard to imag­ine life with­out it. Pun­gency can be very mild — just the tini­est tin­gle — or it can be intense enough to make you cough. Olive oil afi­ciona­dos will some­times refer to a one, two, or look out, a three-cough oil.

The third of the three pos­i­tive attrib­utes of olive oil, in addi­tion to fruity and pun­gent, is bit­ter. Bit­ter­ness, like pun­gency, is also an acquired taste. As any­one who has ever tasted an olive right off the tree can attest, bit­ter is a promi­nent taste in fresh olives.

Cur­ing olives for the table, in fact, has to start with a deb­it­ter­ing process. Since olive oil is made from uncured olives, vary­ing degrees of bit­ter­ness can be found; oil made from riper fruit will have lit­tle to no bit­ter­ness, oil made from greener fruit can be dis­tinctly bit­ter.

Amer­i­can taste hori­zons are broad­en­ing; we are explor­ing bit­ter­ness with foods like dark choco­late, bit­ter salad greens and now, robust olive oils.

The fruity char­ac­ter­is­tics you may notice in the mouth include nutty, but­tery and other ripe fla­vors and a fuller spec­trum of green fruity notes. Another char­ac­ter­is­tic that is most pro­nounced in this retronasal per­cep­tion, is ran­cid­ity — we will explore that when we look at the com­mon defects of olive oil in another arti­cle. The tra­di­tional palate cleanser between olive oils is water, plain or sparkling, and slices of Granny Smith apple.

Once you have tasted an olive oil plain, the next step is to taste it in com­bi­na­tion with food. This is where olive oil comes to life, as one of the fla­vors in a dish.

Wine presents a good anal­ogy: a wine that is great with food might not be appro­pri­ate as an aper­i­tif. Olive oil is the same: some­times an olive oil that seems over-the-top pun­gent and bit­ter by itself or with bread, is per­fec­tion itself when used to top a hearty bean soup.

Pair­ing olive oils and foods is an entire dis­cus­sion of its own, but for a great learn­ing expe­ri­ence, try three dif­fer­ent olive oils — one del­i­cate, one medium, one robust — with a vari­ety of items. Good choices are warm boiled pota­toes, fresh moz­zarella, ripe toma­toes, bread, warm cooked white beans, salad greens, sea­sonal cooked veg­eta­bles, grilled steak, poached or grilled chicken; pretty much what­ever is for din­ner. Cook things sim­ply, with­out a lot of added sea­son­ings, but be sure you have some sea salt on hand.

Now taste pieces of the same food dipped in each of the oils. Notice how the fla­vors inter­act. Is it a har­mo­nious mix? A con­trast? Does one fla­vor over­whelm the other, or do they bal­ance well? 

This is a fun thing to do with a group of friends: you can taste together and com­pare impres­sions. Add a cou­ple of wines — a red and a white — to com­plete the pair­ings, and you have your­self a din­ner party.


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