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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Degustation of extra virgin olive oil (Γευσιγνωσία του πρασίνου χρυσού)

Apologies for the fuzzy photos.

I recently attended a tasting session of extra virgin olive oil. It was organised by some foodies in Hania, namely the Cretan Gastronomy Network (Δίκτυο Κρητικής Γαστρονομίας) and was held at a top-end restaurant in Hania (Peinaleon - Πειναλέων) amidst a very convivial and informal atmosphere. The olive oil samples all came from micro-producers' pressings. The people who had come to the tasting sessions were all producers, chefs and heavy consumers of olive oil.

 Peinaleon Restaurant, Eleftheriou Venizelou St, Hania

We often hear about wine-tasting sessions, but rarely about olive oil-tasting sessions, despite being at the source. So what does a degustation session of extra virgin olive oil consist of? According to Tom Mueller, olive oil is heated in glasses to 28 degrees Celsius, tasters insert their noses into the glass while their eyes are closed, then they take a mouthful of oil and start slurping at it whle sucking in air, all the while that they make notes on what they felt and tasted as they were doing this. 

That's not quite what happened at our tasting session. We were there to enjoy the product more than to judge it - after all, most olive oil producers in Crete believe that their 'lathi' (λάδι - olive oil) is the best! After a brief welcome by one of the organisers and a discussion of the qualities of extra virgin olive oil (the main criterion is its low acidity of no more than 0.8%), before the tasting session began, the audience asked the local experts some questions about how to identify good olive oil.

The green colour of the first olive oil is not a camera trick - this was αγγουρέλαιο (aggourelaio), the freshest of all the olive oil samples. It had one of the lowest acidity levels among the samples.

The samples of extra virgin olive oil that were presented that evening were all of very high quality olive oil, all pressed recently and all from olive trees grown locally. In a sense, it could not help but to be so good. Interestingly, nearly all the samples were pressed with Koroneiki olives - this particular olive cultivar has the highest content of polyphenols which is what gives olive oil its protective anti-oxidant qualities. So we really couldn't have had it any better than this.

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Here are some useful tips that came out of the evening's discussion for people who don't live in an olive-producing country when deciding on which extra virgin olive oil to purchase.

1. You can only trust the labelling up to a certain point. What an EVOO label will not tell you is how long the olives were sitting in a sack before being pressed, whether the sack was made of plastic or natural fibres, how infested the olive fruit was with the Mediterranean dakos fly, whether the olives used to make the oil were irrigated ot not, if the olives were all from the same grove/area, among other important information needed to determine the quality of the olive oil that will be produced from the olive fruit to be pressed - such factors all have some significant effect on the acidity of the resulting olive oil.

2. The taste of a particular extra-virgin olive oil is all about personal preference. It is actually quite subjective. This is why it is very important to be able to taste the original product. What is in the bottle or the can is not necessarily going to live up to your expectations, no matter what the label says. Not only that, but most olive oils that are exported are actually blends - such tastes cannot be described as pure in the first place. Only micro-producers' estate olive oils which have been bottled/canned in lots using one cultivar from one grove can truly be described in this way.

3. What olive oil you prefer to use in your food depends on what you are going to do with it. Low-acidity olive oil is great for salad dressings and dipping your bread into it because it has a very neutral aroma and taste. It's very thin and runny, unlike high-acidity olive oil (ie anything higher than 0.8%), which feels thick and gloopy. But high-acidity olive oil is the best one for cooking with: sauces bind better with this kind of olive oil. Using low-acidity olive oil in this way will make your food watery rather than oily. In Crete's recent past, when olive oil presses were not technology-based, Greek housewives would use the olive oil which had been used to fry potatoes with in their cakes and biscuits, because they wanted a lighter tasting oil - heating it to a very high level did just that.  

4. Terms used by olive oil experts to describe the taste of olive oil abound on the web: artichoke, fresh-cut grass, kiwifruit, green tomato; tropical fruits, lemon; like a mouldy piece of bread, farmyard flavours; green bananas and passionfruit, almondy and peppery; stale nuts, old and fusty, among a great gamma of many many others! It is quite clear that terms such as these are subjective, based purely on what the taster perceives. These terms would never be used by a Greek to describe an olive oil! They are often based on what olive oil expert samplers at the renowned standardising agency, the IOOC, have described as constituting a high quality olive oil. This consensus comes from sampling olive oils from many different varieties of trees all over the world. Coincidentally, the taste and aroma of Cretan and Pelopennesian olive oil are often regarded as what olive oil producers strive to achieve, which should not come as any surprise: 80% of Greece's olive oil production is extra virgin olive oil, followed by Italy with only 45% - Greece's figure is quite unbeatable.

5. The best-looking and best-tasting extra virgin olive oil is the most freshly pressed. Olive oil in essence does not have an expiry date, but its flavour, colour and aroma will be influenced over time. Olive oil is not like wine which may improve as it ages: olive oil will suffer a kind of 'depreciation' as time passes, even when kept in the best storage conditions (a cool, dark preferably metal container). This is why the imported olive oil you buy will have an expiry date - but you can still use it past this date, as long as you store it appropriately. 

Freshly pressed olive oil filling up our storage drums. 

6. Colour isn't the best way to tell if an olive oil is extra virgin or not. The colour of an olive oil will change over time. After only four months, an olive oil will already begin to change colour and aroma; the aciditiy level is not based on its colour or aroma. Although a green colour in your olive oil is a good indication that it is a good olive oil, it is not necessarily a defining factor. All it shows is that the oil was very freshly pressed, from unripe olives - so it's highly doubtful that you will be able to get your hands on a green-coloured olive oil in a non-producer country. In Greece, in fact, it is produced in limited quantities for the public - it really is difficult to get if you are not at the source.

7. Price does not really tell you about the quality or taste of the extra-virgin olive oil you are buying. If you live in a non-producer country where all olive oil is imported, buying supermarket-branded and extra-virgin-labelled olive oil means you are buying a blend which has been crafted in such a way that it can be sold cheaply. Discounted olive oil makes sense only if the store is trying to clear its stocks to make way for the new harvest. If you want the best olive oil you can buy, you really need to taste it first. If your wallet size is small, like most people's is these days, you will need to admit to yourself that you may need to compromise on quality. In this case, do what Greeks and other producer-nation inhabitants do: use one extra virgin olive oil for dressings which you may have paid a lot of money for, and use another olive oil for cooking which you can buy cheaply.

Even we do this in our own home when we are given freshly produced olive oil by friends. Otherwise, we use our stored supplies from that year's pressing of olive oil, whether it's from our own trees or someone else's. We always replenish our supplies every year at about the same time - we only have enough storage space for about 150kg of olive oil, what is what we use in our home per year.

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So you've decided to do a taste test of extra virgin olive oil before you buy - how are you going to do this in a store? At the degustation session, we all tasted the olive oil samples with freshly baked bread. This is the best way a Cretan believes s/he will be able to tell if the olive oil is 'good' - and it's also the same method a reputable olive oil merchant in an import country will use with his customers when selling bulk olive oil.

Really good quality extra virgin olive oil will have a genuinely fresh fruity taste in your mouth, and a slight peppery burning sensation in your throat as you swallow the oil-dipped bread. I've tried canned export-quality extra-virgin olive oil produced in Crete that has these qualities, so I believe this is accessible to people in non-producer countries. Adulterated samples and low-quality olive oils are often found in blended multi-chain brand-name olive oils: seriously speaking, what does one expect from an olive oil branded 'Rachael Ray' or 'Safeway Select' In my opinion, it may as well have been called Tutti Frutti...

Most of the tips given in this article on how to buy good olive oil are really quite useful. Being able to tell whether an olive oil is good or not is not rocket science; you know when you like something.

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