Olive Oil 101

Posted by Olivia on Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

On Wednesday morning I joined 65 olive farmers, olive oil connoisseurs, and olive agriculture specialists at Ramekins Culinary School in downtown Sonoma for an olive oil milling seminar and tasting led by Paul Vossen of the UC Davis Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County. Paul is an olive oil expert, instrumental in the resurgence of the California olive oil industry.

We met in a large dining room, set beautifully with each place setting holding 6 blue glass cups—5 of which contained local olive oils, the 6th one empty, presumably a receptacle for unconsumed oil. Also at each place was a plate of freshly-sliced green apples and water bottles for palate cleansing. As we began the tasting, I was surprised to learn that we wouldn’t be sampling the oil on bread, but rather we would be drinking it straight. Paul passed out tasting sheets for us to use to describe and rate the oils in terms of texture, pungency, bitterness, color, aroma and about 3 dozen other qualities. As I looked around, everyone seemed to know exactly what they were doing, shouting out the numbers they assigned to the different qualities (we were determining the different qualities on a 15-point scale). Normally I am a very participatory student, but in this case I opted to listen and take it all in, both because it was absolutely fascinating and because I was, without a doubt, the least olive oil-savvy person in the room.

But it was OK. I was there to learn.

And learn I did. Paul led us in tasting each oil, explaining how to identify rancidity—usually caused by improper storage or oil made from bad fruit, and explaining the potential uses for oils depending on their qualities. After the tasting and lecture, it was off to The Olive Press to meet Deborah who would show us the olive oil milling process up close.

We met Deborah behind the press itself, where she was waiting with a huge bin of freshly-picked olives. Using a forklift, she expertly scooped and dumped the olives, pits included, into a huge hopper. To see the process we witnessed, check out this video. As if that wasn’t amazing enough, we were handed little cups to hold under the stream of freshly-pressed oil as it came out off the press to sip. Heaven.

The day left me with two things: a whole lot of new knowledge about olive oil and a strong desire to acquire even more.



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