Tasting Extra Virgin Olive Oil
As I mentioned in the story “RevOILution” (Tidings December 09/January 10), tasting extra virgin olive oil is much like tasting wine. You’re assessing aromas, flavours, mouthfeel and finish. Traditionally, colour hasn’t really counted, but the “new school of tasting” (and me, for that matter) feel that, like wine, the colour of an oil is worth considering, if for no other reason than aesthetics (though – and this is broadly generalizing – oil pressed from early-harvest olives can appear greener).
A sherry copita or other small, tulip-shaped glass makes an ideal tasting vessel. The colour of olive oil can range from golden yellow to almost forest green. Swirl the oil as you would a wine then allow it to sit for a few seconds before inhaling gently with your nose above the glass to appreciate the primary aromas before getting your schnoz right in to pick up secondary aromas. The aromas you’ll find span the gamut from fruity/flowery/vegetal notes to nutty/herbal mineral nuances.
Next, take a sip and roll it around in your mouth allowing the oil to make contact with all areas of your palate. Take in a little air through your lips as you would a wine before swallowing. Note the texture (light, silky, unctuous, heavy), the persistence of the flavour, the overall complexity and balance between fruit, bitterness and piquancy. Some oils slide down the palate very gently then fire back a blast of pepperiness that can lead to a coughing fit. If you can, try and taste a few oils in one sitting.
You might be pretty surprised at the flavour variations, differing spice levels (it still freaks me out that an olive derivative can be so bloody peppery) and degrees of bitterness you find. Remember that like wine, olive oil isn’t intended to be consumed alone. Food with decent acidity (tomatoes for instance) and salt can radically change the profile of an oil so that one that seemed overly bitter and hot on its own gets on famously with the food. As an experiment, drizzle some quality extra virgin olive oil on a fairly neutral hunk of bread. Then do the same thing only add just a pinch of sea salt and see what happens to the flavour.
High quality olive oil shouldn’t be relegated strictly to the role of salad dressing (where it certainly does work wonders). A little dollop of extra virgin olive oil can add nuance, complexity and additional flavour to almost any dish from fish to meat, soups, cheese and even dessert. Spain’s molecular gastronomy maniacs have concocted olive oil “caviar,” olive oil “spaghetti,” olive oil “popcorn” and have even managed to replace butter with olive oil in a number of desserts, so don’t be afraid to experiment with not so traditional uses yourself.