The first international course for oil sommeliers has started, in the Ligurian province of Imperia, on the Italian Riviera dei Fiori on the border with France’s Côte d’Azur: that is no accident, as it is right here that one of the world’s most delicate extra-virgin olive oils is produced, and the local experts have set up the first association of tasters after deciding to pass on their expertise to other, new experts. People who will be capable of assessing the organoleptic qualities of extra-virgin oils from Italy and around the world, making recommendations for accompaniments, guiding companies in the secrets of perfect production, and offering themselves as professional consultants to the finest restaurants.
Exactly as it has been going on for some time with sommeliers associated with the world of wine, now oil has also become a new frontier in need of an expert, well-informed guide. But that’s not the only one: the role of taster, advisor, disseminator – in a word, sommelier (the term comes from the French saumalier, one who works with beasts of burden, but over time this came to refer to a cellarman) is today one of the most sought-after in the area of food and wine. They are sought after by starred restaurants, gourmet pubs, gastropubs, cocktail bars, small local producers of controlled-origin products, large food companies. That is because having an accredited expert available, perhaps even in the dining room, adds value to the business, provides a highly specialised service, and gives off that certain allure that only a sommelier is capable of achieving: telling stories about wine, oils, beer and so on.
Japanese sake tasting
From the Riviera dei Fiori to London, where the world association of sake tasters is headquartered: there is certification available for this Japanese brewed rice beverage; it provides training and issues an international license to the best tasters. Increasingly requested in starred restaurants, where they now deal not just with pairing sake with sushi but also try out unusual pairings with other world cuisines. The successes are piling up in French and Italian kitchens, as well as in trendy bars where it is used as a base for new cocktails.
Cider and beer
Among brewed beverages, cider also has its specialists these days, able to recognise properties and provenance and pair the fizzy alcoholic beverage made from fermented apples with just the right dishes. From French crepes to English cheeses, from meat and fish to Indian spices, cider has become an excellent and refined accompaniment to meals – so says the sommelier. In Normandy, France, there is a maison cidricole with affiliated wine experts capable of advising the local cider producers who work in the region to combine modern technological discoveries that are now part of the worldwide winemaking heritage with the tradition of a beverage with a very long history, without distorting the sensory properties. It’s said their appointment books are so full that you have to wait for years to get one.
And among alcoholic drinks, beer still boasts a very large number of experts who take a course of study to become a “beer sommelier”, a title that originated in Bavaria, Germany, and has now been exported worldwide. Even in the case of blondes and reds, the expert supports servers and the dining room manager in advising the restaurant’s customers and is able to list and expound on the sensory properties of a given product; he also helps producers and spreads beer culture worldwide.
tea and coffee tasters
Even the most popular non-alcoholic beverages have their experts: tea sommeliers, coffee tasters (especially those specialising in espresso), and tasters of chocolate (liquid or bars) need a long course of study to be able to unveil the secrets of the plant leaves or cacao beans that the best products come from. Once again, it is the tastings guided by their words that really make the difference and turn a food-and-wine experience into something really special.