by Kate Heyhoe
In 1997, the staff of the electronic Gourmet Guide (a.k.a. the eGG, the precursor to The Global Gourmet) attended an olive oil tasting in Mill Valley, California.
The tasting itself, like a blind tasting in wine, featured six unmarked cups of oils, each one numbered. Led by Frantoio owner Roberto Zecca, we first held each cup of oil in our hands, so that the warmth would release the aromas. In Italy, specially made oil tasters are used, looking like oversized decorative thimbles with hinged flat lids. Made from enameled metal, they transfer the heat from your palms to the oil more efficiently, then capture the aromas under the closed lid until ready to be released and sampled.
We were fortunate to be joined by Michele Anna Jordan, who has appeared frequently on the electronic Gourmet Guide and whose Good Cook's Book of Oil & Vinegar contains a handy guide to tasting olive oil. One by one, each cup of oil was warmed, smelled and finally tasted using bread cubes, notes were made, and palates were cleansed with mineral water and a slice of green apple before the next sampling.
The experts recommend placing a small amount of oil on your lower lip, and with the tip of your tongue, taste the oil for its degree of sweetness. Then sip the oil and taste for spiciness using the sides of your tongue. The differences can be enormous.
Tuscany turned out to be the origin of the first young oil—strong with a burst of vegetation, but whose flavor we were told would mellow with the first heat of summer.
Oil #2 was sweeter, more buttery with a pleasant aftertaste and a slight peppery flavor. This turned out to be Frantoio's own young release, an excellent treat for us all. The distinct peppery flavor of some oils is not an accident. Over the years in Italy, trees were crossed to intentionally instill that characteristic. Why? As an alternative to the high cost of pepper itself, a very desirable flavoring both then and now.
The third oil sparked Michele's fancy. "Artichoke on the palate, comes through in the middle" she remarked. Indeed, the descriptors of olive oils are as complex as those of wines. This turned out to be an historical olive, the picholine, brought over by the French. Peppery with a bitter aftertaste, these olives had acquired a sweeter, milder taste from the local California soil than their original counterparts. Still the flavor was quite intense, but we were told it would "undress" and mellow in about three months.
Oil #4 was made with traditional Tuscan olives but ones grown in California, where we lack the same cold winters, causing a different and even improved product in many instances. It bore a pleasantly sophisticated but not overpowering taste. It had complex layers of flavors and was favored by many in the room. This must have pleased Ridgely and Colleen, for this blind sample turned out to be their own oil, DaVero. Indeed, as they tell the story, they had explored many Tuscan oils before settling on this one which they then brought back to California.
The fifth oil, balanced and nonintrusive, came from a classic mix of old plants. Fruity, subtle and sweet, it was green from the picholine olives and lacked any peppery or bitter flavor.
Finally, oil #6 was best termed "zingy." Not only was it a newly crushed oil, but it came from young trees, while all the others were from old ones. One small sip was quite powerful, leaving an aggressive taste smack dab in the front of the teeth. This was clearly an oil to be aged.
What becomes most evident in an oil tasting is that there are different oils for different foods, and that oils are indeed organic: they will change their color, flavor and potency over time. An aggressive oil now may be best suited as a condiment, as with bread, but a few months later may be mellow enough to serve with vegetables or salad without overpowering them.
This then brings up the method of storing oils. All the experts agreed that it is advisable to carry various types of olive oil in the kitchen, each for its own use, but keep in mind that olive oil turns rancid quickly. Store it away from light and heat. Refrigeration is advised, but do let it come to room temperature before serving it. "Cellar temperature, around 55 degrees F or 14 degrees C, is ideal," noted Paolo Villoresi, editor-in-chief of La Cucina Italiana.
This page modified February 2007
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