We recently traveled to California to take part in the Sensory Evaluation of Olive Oil Course presented by the UC Davis Olive Center and the California Olive Oil Council. Have no fear; we have not strayed from our mission to provide exclusively Italian extra virgin olive oil!
We appreciate the knowledge of the Californians and we were able to translate issues to our business. Throughout the day we tasted extraordinary to ordinary, and even some “aged” oils. Tastings were primarily oils from California, and they only shared the names of the oils that were defect free.
If there was any disappointment in the day, it’s that none of the dozens of samples were Italian olive oils. Yes, we tasted Ascolana and Leccino, but those were grown in California. It would have been great to compare a California-grown Ascolana to Azienda del Carmine’s award winning Ascolana from Marche. In one segment we tasted California-grown Spanish Picual in early harvest and late harvest pressings. The key descriptor is that the early harvest tasted like a quality artisan oil, while the late harvest was reminiscent of grocery store offerings.
We spent time discussing nasal and retronasal aspects of olive oil. Sounds enchanting? With an element of surprise we were treated to the negative attributes found in fusty and rancid olive oils. Our session leader served a rancid Arbequina, and in the discussion that followed, we learned that she tried a 3-year-old Tuscan and found it too good to be useful for our aged sample. The bitter and pungent characteristics common to Tuscan oils are indicators of high polyphenol levels. Those same strong components hold off rancidity.
In an official tasting, there are a number of restrictions to ensure an unbiased evaluation. The tastings are conducted with blue glassware to eliminate the influence of color. There are scoring sheets designed to make fair evaluations, and the high and low score sheets are discarded. Panelists are isolated, and a minimum of 8 tasters must be present.
In our sessions, ten oils were tasted straight from cups, and then five of those oils were tasted with each of six foods (mozzarella, beans, cherry tomatoes, bread, field greens, and steak).
As we discussed industry trends, the focused moved to the future of olive oil tasting and evaluation. One bright spot is the development of Association 3E evaluating Super Premium Olive Oil in Florence. La Poderina Toscana is one of the top oils on that list. You can see La Poderina Toscana’s evaluation here.
Quality olive oil has made great strides in a relatively short period of time. The olive oils of the ancient Greeks and Romans would be far more like the oils we now identify as rancid. The characteristics of a premium olive oil (excellent quality olives, good pressing conditions, minimal introduction of oxygen, and controlled bottling, storage, and transportation) were all unknown or unachievable until relatively recent times. While the ancients made a quality product, critical to their civilizations, they might not recognize today’s best oils.