Ink on my Apron: A Beginner’s Guide to Olive Oil
While a few basic cues can be picked up from a label, your most reliable tool is taste. It all comes down to training your palate and then understanding your own preferences.
“A glug of good extra virgin olive oil”, is a cooking instruction I may never be able to disregard again nor will I be getting into a tizzy when my neighbourhood-friendly supermarket has an irresistible 2-for-1 deal in the olive oil aisle. I’m not one for food snobbery, but I’m still enjoying my newly-acquired status as a certified Olive Oil Tasting Class Attendee, as of last week. Once you’ve experienced the four S’s – Swirling, Sniffing, Slurping, and Swallowing – firsthand and blind tasted the good stuff against a supermarket brand it's easy to see why. This appreciation for the finer things is only heightened on hearing stories from a professional taster at The National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters and Founder of the Olive Oil Council of Canada, Antonella Manca-Mangoff about relatives from her village in Italy who have made it to the grand old age of 100 and whose longevity she attributes to a healthy lifestyle and that all-important star element in a Mediterranean diet – olive oil.
In an age where advertising is driven by “influencer-led” campaigns, gimmicks, tall claims, and a string of superlatives, Cooperativa Olivicoltori di Oliena, an Italian cooperative of olive growers, has taken it upon itself to enlighten a lucky bunch of us about the facets of two varieties of its olive oil (the multi-awarded Iliò and Lanaitho) in what I consider the best way – by taste. The Cooperative’s oils get their names from their place of origin Oliena – a picturesque town in the mountainous region of Barbàgia in Sardinia. As producers, OliOliena’s underlying message rings loud and clear – you need to walk the talk – and the best way to do this is by teaching people about the finer nuances of what you produce, and enlisting the help of professionals such as Antonella to this effect.
Our sensory flight with Antonella begins as she teaches us about the first step in understanding olive oils – identifying the cultivars or varieties of olives and knowing when they’re harvested. As a basic rule of thumb, October to November and December and January are generally the harvest time for most cultivars but in some regions such as Tuscany, certain cultivars are harvested in September while the Taggiasca cultivar from Liguria is harvested much later on. Most olive cultivars are at their best when they are picked from October to November. Today, we rely on analysis to determine the levels of polyphenols or micronutrients in the olives.
If, like me, you’re always interested in improving your understanding of flavour profiles, the intensity of ingredients, and how to go about pairing your olive oil, Antonella says, quite simply, that while a few basic cues can be picked up from a label, your most reliable tool is taste. It all comes down to training your palate and then understanding your own preferences.
A one-size-fits-all formula is never usually a good idea when it comes to food and cooking, and Antonella states that what really counts when picking an oil is to choose one of good quality. Intensity is a question of taste, a fact that is emphasised when she talks about certain oils that possess pungency to the point that you refer to them as one, two, or three cough oil because they induce a cough. Varieties such as Frantoio and Leccino from Tuscany that have these bold, robust notes are usually best paired with grilled or roasted meats, tomato dishes, and even as a finishing oil on bruschetta. A medium olive oil, on the other hand, could be derived from an olive that is picked a little later in the year like an Arbequina from Spain or Kornoneiki from Greece. With these, you can still feel a certain peppery bitterness and pungency but they’re balanced, making them a solid choice to offset almost everything from vegetables to fish, and as a vinaigrette dressing or dipping oil for bread. To all the bakers out there who like to incorporate olive oil into their cakes, Antonella personally advocates a mild and delicate cultivar such as the Niçoise from France, which is almost sweet and doesn’t overpower the flavours of ingredients such as lemon and vanilla.
The average shelf life of most olive oils is between 18 and 24 months. Storage is everything when it comes to preserving your oils and it’s imperative to keep them away from heat, light, and air. For this very reason, Antonella suggests picking storage containers or bottles that are made of dark or tinted glass and made from non-reactive metals such as stainless steel. A top trick is to buy smaller bottles for personal consumption so as to ensure you’re not tempted to use them past their date of expiry.
Not all olive oils are the same and there are various grades, which you need to familiarise yourself with. At its simplest, the price is a decent parameter to help you gauge the quality of the oil. Extra virgin oil is the highest grade and is high in natural antioxidants and polyphenols while being trans-fat free. Virgin olive oil is a lower grade and while moderately high in antioxidants is considered less healthy than its superior counterpart.
An expression of guilt flashes across my face as Antonella starts talking about Lampante olive oil, which, put quite simply, in the olive oil world is not fit for consumption without further processing and is only intended for refining or for technical use. The industry, however, has conceived an ingenious method of stripping this oil - which by this point resembles a pale liquid – of any of its smells and then pouring back extra virgin olive oil to restore some colour and scent. Could this, I wonder, be the variety that I have naively been drizzling over everything and slathering over my bruschetta with the most virtuous intentions?
Another deceptive trick employed by less-than-noble manufacturers is to proudly ensure that brands flaunt their “Italian” labels. Antonella advises treading with caution, as in many cases, the olives could be sourced from different countries and simply pressed in Italy. A country of origin stamped on a bottle, therefore, is not always a seal of authenticity.
Step one: Holding the glass in one hand and using the other to cover the glass in order to release its aroma
Antonella seems to realise that the talk so far has been slightly theoretical and we all perk up as she tells us that it’s now time to start our flight. Three glass tumblers of olive oil are placed before us and we are informed that colour is by no means an indicator of an oil’s flavour or quality. Scientifically, oils are tested from customised blue glasses that obscure the colour of the oil and facilitate objectivity.
Swirling is the first step in the sensory journey we are about to embark upon. We are requested to hold the glass in one hand and use the other hand to cover the glass while swirling for a few seconds to release the oil’s aroma. Smell is an important aspect that defines the way we approach food and so we are urged on to step two or sniffing. In the soothing tone of a meditation guru, Antonella asks us to breathe in and try to put a name on the aromas we perceive through our nostrils – do we smell the perfume of flowers or the scent of freshly cut grass?
For step three, we are encouraged to leave behind any semblance of polite behaviour and slurp with abandon. This is done by sipping a small amount of oil into your mouth while “sipping” some air as well. Slurping emulsifies the oil with air, helping it to spread throughout one’s mouth. This sort of retro-nasal sampling when the olive oil is in one’s mouth and coats the tongue allows for an enhanced tasting experience while also helping to ascertain the levels of bitterness. The last and final step of the process involves actual swallowing and we are encouraged to determine the intensity of the oil’s pungency in our throats as we swallow it and to note if it leaves a stinging sensation in our throats.
I am not an expert by any stretch, yet the stark differences between each variety is remarkable. Exhibit A, (which I later learn is Iliò) has an intensely fruity and grassy aroma with a medium bitterness while Exhibit B (or Lanaitho) has a medium fruitiness with notes of artichoke and fresh grass. Exhibit C, I am pleased to report, has no aroma worth mentioning. Either that or my senses may have been elevated after sampling the first two exquisite contenders. Suddenly, the air is punctuated with excited squeals as all of us are quick to exclaim that the third variety smells and tastes of nothing. Antonella looks pleased as though her work today is complete.
A lot of you may be curious as to whether the superior oils boasted a taste that I instantly loved. The simple answer is they were both definitely an acquired taste and for a seasoned palate, and this may well have to do with the fact that they weren’t the commercialised unpronounced products we’ve become all too familiar with.
I leave my first tasting class with not just a better appreciation for olive oil but also the knowledge that we owe it to ourselves to eat better and more responsibly. Ask more questions; be more interested in your cultivars. After all, what good is our food if it doesn’t tell us stories? It’s so much more than a hefty price tag or the pretentiousness that accompanies it.
You begin to understand that the price you’re paying is for the privilege of being let in on a way of life. It’s about respecting the traditions of an olive oil cooperative in Oliena dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. It’s about those stories of an entire village coming together in December and of Christmas rituals being neglected to shake the olive trees that burst with plump fruit, begging to be picked. And most importantly, it’s about realising that all of this stems from a deep-seated love and respect for the land and customs that have been passed on, cherished, and championed by generations before being presented to the world. It is, quite simply, the finest sort of heritage in a bottle.
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com.
All photographs courtesy of Jehan Nizar
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