Fortune is on our side: it is raining and so no olives can be harvested. Of course, we are not lucky thanks to this unexpected day off, but rather because today a small town nearby has organized a tasting in an oil mill and since it is raining we can participate. Fantastic!
On our arrival, there are already several spectators, listeners and complete non-professionals eager to learn and on the horseshoe shaped table stand plastic cups, slices of peeled apples (what for we wonder) and a fair quantity of olive oil bottles. Good luck is really on our side: the friendly looking man in front of us who is holding the small course is an authentic olive oil expert. The tasting technique can differ from examiner to examiner, but is in any case publicly regulated by the laws in force today. The well-informed man explains in broad outlines what he is going to show us. Our starting point is not the best: before the tasting we should not have used strong perfume, soap or other cosmetics with a persistent scent, or smoked for at least thirty minutes or eaten for an hour. Furthermore, our physiological and psychological condition has to be satisfactory, which they are, in order not to influence the thorough assessment of the olive oils and the final verdict.
Quality and defect of the oil depend on various factors:
– geographical production area
– climatic conditions
– ripeness of the olives
– treatment of the trees or the soil
– harvesting technology
– storage of the olives
– mixing time of the crushed olives and temperature during processing
– extraction method
– storage of the finished oil
– hygiene and general cleanliness
A real specialist examines the oil against the light and shakes the contents of the bottle slightly to test its fluidity. Our connoisseur, who has in front of him a group of people full of good will but nothing else, decides to pour a small quantity – about one tablespoon – into cups set up in front of him and those near him distribute them among the participants until the last row is reached and everybody has a cup in his hands. A professional tasting glass, of course, is not of plastic but of glass, dark blue or brown so that the person tasting cannot see the colour of the oil, which could be deceptive. He invites us to observe the fluidity and the fragrance of the oil and to describe our impressions. Now we must warm the cup in the
palm of our hands, encouraging the evaporation of the aromatic compounds in the olive oil. We follow his advice, then we look at each other. The fact is that we are not sure about our sensations, some of us seem to have no opinion at all, others are too shy to express themselves. Some are totally concentrated on smelling, trying to hide their embarrassment and hoping that someone else will speak first. Then, of course, there are those who summon up all their courage but do not find the right words. In fact, what we do not know is that there exists a small dictionary, with expressions we are not acquainted with. Our expert talks about “fruity”, “almond like”, “lively”, “pungent”, even “grassy” scents. We look at each other: wow! We learn that there are oils with a specific smell, resembling freshly cut grass and that “fruity” describes the odour of fresh, perfect olives harvested at the right moment. “Almond like” refers principally to the fragrance of fresh almonds but sometimes it is connected with the dried ones, the smell of which can easily be mixed up with almonds becoming rancid. “Lively” is the word to describe a fresh oil, which releases long-lasting, pleasant, aromatic flavours, whereas a good, fruity oil from the new crop is called“ pungent”. This is new land but, after all, we are here to learn. Now he shows us
how to slurp a small quantity by sipping the oil first slowly and lightly and then stronger. In this way it spreads into the whole oral cavity allowing a close contact between the oil and the sensors of mouth and nose. Then he advises us to let the mouth rest for a brief moment and to press the tongue slowly and slightly against the palate, then to inhale air again, abruptly and with half opened lips. The last movements need to be repeated several times and we must keep the oil in our mouths for at least twenty seconds, before spitting it out. Equally important is that we continue to move our tongues in order to thoroughly assess the aftertaste trying to remember as many flavours and fragrances as possible. Again he asks us to tell him our sensations and from the little crowd in front of him we hear a courageous “fresh”, “has a nice taste” and “pleasant”, all words, which have little or nothing to do with the vocabulary, used by our expert. Obviously, he does not understand us – for now, we do not speak the same language.
It’s no good wanting to learn too many things at once and, objectively, we do not have much time, otherwise he would have told us for instance, that olive oils are divided into “fruity sweet” and “fruity green” and that these categories mainly depend on the type, or cultivar, the ripeness of the olives and the production area. Next year we will certainly have the opportunity to deepen our knowledge.
Now he tells us that “bitter” refers to the typical taste of oil from green or pink-violet olives and that – according to intensity – is considered more or less pleasant. “Sour” oil produces a binding effect, “sweet” does not indicate that it is really sugary, but that it has neither pronounced bitter nor astringent or piquant properties. “Artichoke” expresses a particularly pleasant, mainly new oil. Frost damaged olives have a “frozen” taste which means very weak, thin-bodied, tending to a dry and wooden flavour. “Dry” refers to an oil from olives which have ripened during a prolonged period of aridity. “Astringent” describes an oil from unripe olives, particularly rich in polyphenols. The sensation, while tasting it, is like biting into an unripe fruit. If the oil tastes of “net” it has a peculiar rubbery flavour tending to dry attributable to the fact that the olives were left for too long on the catching nets. Then he talks about flavours described as “winy-vinegary”, “rancid”, “muddy”, “musty”, “metallic”, “wicker”, “vegetation water” and “blurry”.
Our heads are spinning and although we are fully concentrated on what he is explaining, it is impossible to remember everything. During the whole time we continue to taste the different oils. Between one sip and another we are recommended to eat a piece of apple (this is what they were for!), because they neutralize the taste in the mouth permitting to continue the tasting. After each test the expert asks for our impressions, but he is good to us because he nearly always puts the right words into our mouths. When he remains in silence and waits for an answer from our side which seldom comes, it is clear that we are genuine beginners. On the other hand it is not easy to familiarize with the different qualities and the terminology of the experts, the tasting needs to be learnt and requires time and patience. At the end of the lesson we are completely satisfied. We know more than before and feel – at least a little – like real olive oil experts. (Extracted from Athena’s Gift, Anneliese Rabl)
Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany