In Good Taste

Posted by Olivia on Monday, March 1st, 2010

You may recall when I had an olive oil tasting party a few months ago. It was a blast. A totally delicious and enjoyable time spent with friends. It was also, I am learning, kind of amateur. Don't get me wrong, amateur is fine, if you're looking to entertain a few friends and consume some tasty olive oil together—which I was—but my journey in olive oil education is leading me to do some tasting that is a little bit closer to professional. So that's what I did this morning: I tasted like a professional.

I consulted my favorite olive oil education blog, Slick Extra Virgin, a straightforward, non-frilly, easy-to-follow blog written by Richard Gawel, that is about what it sounds like it's about: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and found this guide to tasting. 

First, I prepared my kitchen, according to Slick Extra Virgin's requirements, setting out water, green apple slices and plastic cups (I didn't have the traditional blue tasting votives). The wine and cheese I included last time, while delicious, didn't actually do my tasting any favors.

I wanted to start small, so I began with just 3 Extra Virgin Olive Oils from The Olive Press: 1 delicate (AKA "mild") Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Sevillano), one medium Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Mission) and 1 robust Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Sonoma Valley Blend). See below for the specifics from Slick Extra Virgin:

Tasting Conditions

  • Taste in a quiet, clean odorless airy location.
  • Avoid the use of odorous cosmetics, fragrances and lipstick.
  • Avoid drinking or eating a reasonable time before a tasting.  Use common sense here. Some people cope better than others with interferences so, “know yourself”.
  • Limit the number of samples tasted to what you feel comfortable with. Three to four is often quoted but many more experienced people can adequately cope with around 10.
  • If possible, taste the “milder” less bitter oils first, followed by the more bitter “robust” oils.
  • Use tasting cups that have a large bowl volume relative to their opening diameter, and are large enough so that you can swirl 5-10 mls of oil vigorously, and deep enough that the end of your nose doesn’t get oily! I use a lot of inert plastic disposable cups. They have an opening of around 4cm, are a touch deeper and hold 100mls.
  • Have water and apple slices available to cleanse the palate between oils.

Then, I set to work "assessing the oil's aroma." I found it useful to use this list of olive oil "descriptors" to qualify the oils' aromas as I sniffed them. Another great tool is this fantastic tasting wheel, created by Gawel. Here's the how-to on aroma assessment from Slick Extra Virgin:

Assessing the Oil’s Aroma

  • Pour approximately 10-15 mls of oil in a small cup.
  • Assess the oil at approximately (28oC), that is, lukewarm.  This can be achieved by holding the bowl of the glass in the hand while gently swirling.
  • Swirl the oil vigorously with your hand over the top of the cup (or better still use a plastic lid – the sort that you put over take-away hot coffee will do). Swirling increases the surface area of the oil allowing more aroma volatiles to be released.
  • Sniff vigorously. Don’t be shy!

Finally, it was time to taste. I had initially hoped that I could dunk bread into the oil but as it turns out, tasting it straight is the best way to get the full effect. It's not necessary to actually swallow the oil—Gawel instructs that you spit it out, as you'll see below. I mostly spit it out, but I also tried (experimentally) swallowing the oil and, though it was a little funny, it wasn't unenjoyable.

Assessing the In Mouth Sensations of Flavour, Bitterness and Pungency (pepperyness)

  • Taste approximately 3mls of oil
  • Distribute the oil within the mouth and hold the oil in the mouth for a sufficient length of time to warm the oil to body temperature.
  • Grit your teeth and  draw air through the oil (in a rather violent fashion). This is called aspiration and allows the oil to partly atomise which results in the release of flavour volatiles. This is the ’secret handshake’ of oil tasters so it’s worth doing for the pose factor alone.
  • Bitterness and pungency are more easily perceived on the back portion of the tongue and soft palate.  For this reason it is advisable to swallow a small amount of oil.
  • Spit the oil out and assess the amount and length of flavour, bitterness and pungency. Don’t turn off after you spit as the oil can tell you a lot more if you persevere.

Even if you spit, the oil can coat your mouth, leaving a film behind and making it tricky to taste the next sample. This is why it's important to have palate-cleansing water and crisp green apple slices on hand to freshen your mouth between samples.

While I still intend to do plenty of consumption of Extra Virgin Olive Oil with creamy cheese, crusty bread and full-bodied wine, it was great to begin to learn about the deeper complexities of this magnificant oil, as it will further inform how I use it with food. And food is, after all, what we're here for, right?






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