Jul 14, 2014

Olive Oil, how to taste and pick great one...

On our recent trip to Italy we learned more than just how to be annoying tourists. We enjoyed the food and wine all over the country. We also had many conversations (some more understandable than others) about the food and wine we were consuming. Some of the most comprehensible were at some of the wineries we had the pleasure of visiting (Wine Tasting in Tuscany). Aside from all the winery info about root stock and vines, pruning and tending, picking and handling and finally the making of the wine we also discovered a whole new world of olive oil. All the wineries we visited were producers of fine olive oil.
Olives are fruit, grown on the olive tree, olea europaea. Olive trees have been tended for thousands of years. Right off the tree, the olive is extremely bitter, and virtually inedible.

The traditional method of extracting olive oil from is virtually the same today as it was a thousands years ago. At harvest time, olives are almost always harvested by hand, and collected in tarps placed around the foot of the tree. The next hours are what helps separate the regular olive oil from the exceptional. For exceptional olive oil, the olives are taken to the mill immediately and are processed within a couple hours if not minutes. Once the olive is picked it immediately starts to become more acidic, which is why the time from picking to pressing is so vitally important for quality olive oil. Giant stones weighing several tons are used to crush the olives and pits into mash. The olive mash is then spread onto thin mats. These mats are stacked, and placed into a machine "press." As the press applies several hundred pounds of pressure, oil and water from the mash seep out of the mats and drip into collection vats. In the traditional method, no heat is applied in the pressing, hence the term "first cold pressed." The oil is allowed to settle, and any vegetable water is removed either by siphoning off, centrifuge or decantation. Oil extracted from the mechanical pressing of the olive is described as "virgin" olive oil, because it is pure, unrefined and unprocessed. "Extra" is the highest grade for olive oil and the best you can buy. The virgin oil produced from the mechanical pressing may be called "extra" if it has less than 1% free oleic acid, and if it exhibits superior taste, color and aroma. Thus, the "extra" in extra virgin olive oil means "premium," or simply, "the best." Like wines, extra virgin olive oils can vary dramatically in taste, depending upon the type and quality of the fruit that is pressed, how fast it is pressed, the time of harvest, the weather during the growing season, and the region from which the olives were produced.

Connoisseurs generally use the following adjectives in appraising extra virgin olive oils: mild, semi-fruity and fruity, depending on the flavor of the olive that can be detected. Further, some oils, such as the finer oils from Tuscany Italy, have a peppery finish that many appreciate.

During our time in Italy we had the opportunity to taste olive oil in the Tuscan region. As olive oil tasting rookies we were in for a bit of a shock. 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 sherry glass or a shot glass. 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 (just like wine).

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 good size sip of the oil, You ideally want to get the olive oil in 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 process will give you a whole bunch of other flavor notes. Now swallow all of the oil 'down the hatch').

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 little like the hotness of chilies. Once you start to get into that spicy kick, it is hard to imagine life without it. Pungency can be very mild or 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 for the best a three cough olive oil. We coughed a plenty, much to the amusement of our hosts.

In summery there are a few critical things that make a great olive oil. One in particular is the less than 1% free oleic acid (better if < 0.5%) but tasting is the best way to find the one you like.
Here are four places that were very instrumental in educating us on premium olive oil (and wine), and in showing us how to really taste it properly. We still prefer to taste like a tourist (with bread) but learned an awful lot about this magical oil.

Happy Tasting Adventures,


Kiwi & Koala

1 comment:

  1. Great article. Very informative. Had to laugh at the "three cough" rating


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