Friday, 9 November 2007

Olive oil tasting: how to spot the difference

To achieve the extra virgin olive oil standard, the product needs to go through two processes. One takes place in the laboratory, and consists of a chemical test to establish that its acidity level is below 1º. The other involves a sensorial analysis carried out by a panel of tasting experts who will judge its appearance, aromas, taste and tactility. The minimum mark awarded to qualify for extra virgin olive oil should be 6.5 out of 10. You don’t need to be an expert to taste, establish and enjoy the difference. Besides your senses and the oils you plan to taste, you will only need a cognac glass -if you cannot get hold of an oil tasting glass- and a saucer or cardboard coaster to cover it.

At least four senses will intervene in your tasting experience: sight, smell, taste and touch. Probably, the first thing to catch your attention will be the colour. The oil appearance, although it is not a crucial factor, will give away some information about the liquid you have in hand. Primarily, the olive oil colour is determined by the ripeness and type of fruit used to produce it. It ranges from deep green to golden dark or bright yellow. Broadly speaking, greenish oils are made with unripe olives and have an intense and bitter taste, whereas golden oils are obtained from ripe olives and tend to be sweeter. Moreover, oils made from green olives tend to retain a slight greenish shade, whereas the ones obtained from black olives usually boast yellow tones.

On the other hand, density has a lot to do, not only with the type of olives used, but also with the production and storage process itself. A good olive oil has to be dense but fluid. You can check if this is the case by stirring the oil in the tasting glass and watching how long it takes for the liquid to slip down from the glass walls. It is worth remembering that colour is not taken into account when grading an olive oil, so much so that official tasting glasses are tinted in order to avoid disclosing relevant information that could predetermine the opinion of the expert.

The smell is perhaps the most important and complex phase in the tasting process. The distinction of the aroma and bouquet of an olive oil is almost an art. The advice of those in the know is to search for flavours that, amongst others, remind us of healthy olives, almond, apple, figs or grass. Extra virgin olive oils that have a characteristic smell of healthy and fresh olives are referred to as fruity oils that can vary in intensity.

To make sure it gives off all the fragrances, the liquid should be at approximately 28ºC so you may need to heat up the glass with your own hands until it feels warm enough. Furthermore, you will be able to better appreciate its range of aromas if you cover the glass with a saucer or coaster and then shake it in small circles. This will concentrate the olive oil aromas before uncovering it to smell it. Bear in mind that there are also negative qualities you may come across during the smelling stage. For example, you may detect a scent reminiscent of vinegar, or perhaps of fermented, mouldy or oxidized olives that have probably been stored in poor conditions for too long.

Once the main flavours have been defined, the next stage consists of tasting the oil. This should confirm the aromas identified previously and provide some other vital information related to the four tastes our tongue can distinguish: sour, sweet, bitter and salty. These can persist in our mouth and trachea -if we swallow it- for a while.

Finally, the touch (within the mouth) will tell us how harsh or astringent an oil is, or whether it is slightly piquant to the palate or throat.

For a fine selection of Spanish extra virgin olive oils please visit our Spanish food online store.


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