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Not long ago, nobody – not even the most passionate foodies – would have considered it indispensable to have myriad olive oils at their disposal: it was enough to have one oil to use for frying, one light and perfumed oil, and a more full-bodied oil to use according to necessity and the individual dish.
Today, instead, we know that behind what we’ve long considered to be a simple – albeit precious – condiment, there’s an entire universe full of complexities, just like the world of wine. This is the reason for the recent explosion of courses, guides, trade fairs and utensils dedicated to this fundamental ingredient.
Oil can be – or rather, it should be – tasted before purchase, especially if we want to select the one most suitable to our palates and our preferred uses. Italian oil is widely recognised as among the best in the world, which makes it also one of the most imitated and potentially subject to counterfeit products.
Following are a series of rules that will help in the understanding of olive oil, necessary tips to help you organise at-home tastings of extra-virgin oil, just like a true expert. The basic premise is that, just as in the case of wine, when talking about olive oil one must think in specifics: there are many different types of oils, cultivars, and olive trees, which are subject to selection and blending by olive growers.
Here are a few things every olive oil taster should know.
For a correct sensory or “organoleptic” analysis, all the senses should be used: sight, smell, touch and taste.
The best time of day to taste oil is in the morning; don’t eat anything for at least an hour before tasting and avoid drinking coffee and, of course, smoking. Avoid wearing any perfumed cosmetics, which may interfere with your ability to evaluate the delicate nature of the oil.
Pour a small quantity into a dark-coloured glass (commonly blue or amber), which prevents the taster perceiving the colour of the oil. Colour, in and of itself, should not be considered a qualitative parameter.
Samples of oil for tasting should be kept at a temperature of around 28°, which allows for the aromatic features of the product to be ideally volatile.
Begin the olfactory test: smell the oil to evaluate the intensity of the fruity notes and the presence of other eventual notes.
Now for the tasting. Let a smell quantity of oil swirl around in your mouth and then allow it to oxygenate by slowing inhaling air (keeping the lips partly closed and placing the tongue on your palate). The oil will release its volatile properties that will arrive at the mucous membranes of the nose and allow you to perceive all of its various aromas.
After this inhaling technique, which is called “stripping”, take a pause. And then repeat the same action (maybe more vigorously), before spitting out the oil, being careful not to swallow any of it.
Try to recognise the different flavours and aromas of the oil: bitterness (determined by the abundance of flavonoids and secoridoids), spiciness (a sensation defined as “tactile”). The perception of a sweeter note is tied to the absence or mildness of a bitter taste.
First identify the positive notes: among the most primary aromatic scents considered positive are: artichoke, chamomile, aromatic herbs, fig leaf, ripe fruity, green fruity, citrus, pepper, vanilla and almond.
The expert taster is able to identify any eventual defects present in the product, which are often distinguished by hints of wine or vinegar. These hints signal the use of lesser-quality olives, olives that were pressed when they were either too ripe or else not properly conserved.
Sometimes there are hints of mould or humidity, usually found in oils made from olives in which mould and yeast has developed. This defect is neither intense nor easy to identify and derives from an unpleasant fermentation of a product that has not been filtered or decanted in the ideal way. And one more thing worth remembering is the unpleasant “rancid” note that can be tasted when the oil has had prolonged contact with air.
Guides, tips and places that the true olive oil lover can't miss: the Flos Olei guide, the latest trends in olive oil emerged at the Salone Internazionale dell’Olio Extravergine di Qualità (SOL) and the increasing quality of olive oil in Lazio, the Italian region where Bertarello oil is made.