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Judy Ridgway

Earlier we have been talking about olive oil. Now we are going to taste it. Tasting olive oil is an art rather like tasting wine. But you do not need to be an expert to appreciate the interesting differences in tastes and flavours which can be found in olive oils from different regions.

After all you are tasting and evaluating different foods and drinks all the time. "I like that kind of bread", or "I don't like that wine" are common remarks. You are, of course, using your senses of taste and smell to make these judgements. But you just don't think about it very much.

The secret of good tasting is to think about the food or drink that you are tasting. So every time you use an oil at home take a little taste and think about it. Try to describe the oil to yourself.

In this way you will start to answer that most important question "What does it taste like?" You will also start to build up a taste memory for olive oil and this will make it easier to compare oils in the future.

Taste is actually built on your sense of smell. Try holding your nose when you taste the first oil later this morning and you will find that you will not have very much idea about its flavour taste. The tongue and palate can only assess sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness and only the latter is appropriate to olive oil. (Sweetness in olive oil refers to lack of pungency rather than sugar sweetness).

Your mouth will give you some idea of the texture of the oil and its degree of pepperyness. The latter is detected at the back of the throat in much the same way as you detect chilli peppers. Remember that your reaction of pepperyness builds up over time. So later oils may seem to be more peppery even if they are not.

The aroma and flavour of an olive oil is the key to its enjoyment and so tasting is an essential part of the official assessment of an oil. An extra virgin olive oil must not only contain less than 1% acidity it must also have a perfect aroma and perfect flavour.

Chemical analysis is used to detect the acidity levels and chemical make up of the oil but the perfect aroma and flavour which are also required can only ba assessed by the human senses of smell and taste.

Some people think that the colour of the oil is also important but this is merely an aesthetic judgement and has nothing to do with quality or flavour. Indeed professional tasting of olive oil takes place in blue containers so that the tasters cannot prejudge the oil from its colour and we too shall be operating like that today.

Professional tasters will warm their blue tasting glasses in the palm of the hand before sniffing the aromas and then tasting the oil. The oil is rolled around the mouth so that it comes into contact with all the taste buds in the different parts of the tongue and palate. At the same time air is drawn through the teeth. This helps to release the full aromas and flavours of the oil. Things are a little simpler for us but you will be able to smell the oils and then taste with a teaspoon or on bread.

So what should you be looking for? The first step is to assess the style of the oil. All olive oils should have a good aroma of freshly pressed olives but is the oil sweet and delicate or intensely pungent or does it lie somewhere in between? And secondly how peppery is it? Remember though that pepperyness does not necessarily rule out sweetness or delicacy mean a lack of complexity.

Though all good olive oils should smell of olives there are many other interesting aromas and fragrances to be found in olive oils from different regions. Perfect aroma and flavour does not mean the same aroma and flavour.

So the next step is to consider what other flavours are present. The possibilities include fruity flavours, grassy/leafy aromas, nuts and other attractive tastes. Now you must translate what your nose and palate are telling you into information which you can remember and communicate to others. How are you going to answer that question "What does it taste like?"

Talking about aromas and flavours is not easy. First of all you need to search your taste memory for flavour comparisons and this is not always as simple as it sounds. Your idea of a nutty aromas may not be the same as mine.

Despite these problems I have made an attempt to enlarge the tasting vocabulary in general use and this was published in a paper entitled "Taste and Flavour inf Olive Oil" which was commissioned by the European Union in 1993.

Some descriptive words relate to the basic style of the oil and take in words like aromatic, bitter, complex, fruity, green, intense, peppery, pungent, smooth, sweet and thick.

Other words such as aggressive, delicate, fragrant, harmonious, mellow, rich, rounded and rustic sum up the overall tasting experience. It is important to note how your reactions to the first taste of the oil in the mouth to that left after you have swallowed the oil blend together. Harmony probably the key word here.

Words relating to the often exotic secondary aromas and flavours take in fruits like apples, bananas, lemons, melons, pears, pineapples, passion fruit and tomatoes.

Verdant aromas include gass, flowers, hay and leaves together with vegetable tastes such as artichokes, avocados, rocket, salad leaves, sorrel and watercress. Nutty tastes relate to almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts.

This is just a selection of words from tasting over 180 olive oils for my book the Olive Oil Companion and from numerous tastings of oils from all round the world in the UK. But don't let me inhibit your. Your taste comparisons are your own and you may want to add many more words.

Charcuterie and prosciuto came up at a UK wine magazine tasting earlier this year, tyres and petrol have been offered by students on a tasting course and eggy, creamy and even chocolatey are becoming overworked.

Tasting and describing the many and varied flavours of olive oil is fascinating but we must not lose sight of the fact not many of us sit round drinking olive oil. It is not usually served on it own. Of course, there is nothing like a piece of bread dipped in a good olive oil before a meal. But more often we use it with other food.

So these descriptions must help us to answer the second question which comes to mind when buying olive oil - "How shall I use this oil". After all olive oil is a flavouring ingredient in its own right. Some oils go well with well flavoured herbs and salad leaves and some are better used with grilled fish or chicken.

Sweet and delicate oils, for example, may be best served with soft salad leaves or gently cooked fish. Their lightly exotic flavours will be enhanced by a little heat whereas very strongly flavoured oils may need chargrilled meats or robust soups to balance their flavours.

I have achieved some good results serving nutty flavoured oils with trout or green beans, both foods I would often have considered cooking with real nuts. Tomato flavoured oils are excellent on tomatoes themselves. The most exotic combination I have come across was a dish of plainly sliced oranges served with the passion fruit flavoured oil from

Mixing and matching different olive oils with different foods adds another exciting element to cooking and if you get the match right you can lift a meal from the pedestrian to the celestial.

This article comes from a Greek talk in the garden of a monastery in Athens
Judy Ridgway

© Copyright 2008 Judy Ridgway -

Published 21 March 2008

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