Judy Ridgway, co-author of The Olive Oil Diet and blogger at www.judyridgway.co.uk, has always been an inspiration to me. A food and drinks writer turned internationally respected olive oil expert, she is able to communicate the How of tasting and make it accessible to all, despite olive oil being quite a difficult subject. Judy is also very fond of whisky and you can listen to a podcast of us chatting together here. She can also be followed on Twitter @judyoliveoil. I am delighted that Judy has written this guest blog for me.
If you would like to try your hand (and palate) at olive oil tasting Judy is holding two one day tasting and appreciation courses in London on Friday 21st April and Monday 24th April, 2017. http://www.oliveoil.org.uk/tasting-classes.html
At the start of Rosemary’s excellent video on how to set about tasting whisky I did not think there would be much in common with the way in which I go about tasting extra virgin olive oil. But I was wrong. As the video proceeded I was fascinated as much by the parallels as by the differences.
Rosemary started her whisky tasting by sniffing it. Just so for olive oil. However, unlike whisky the aromas coming off an olive oil will not necessarily reflect the tastes and flavours to come in the mouth, but they are still important as part of the overall flavour profile of the oil and worth describing. Common aromas arising from extra virgin olive oil include cut grass, salad leaves, apples, tomatoes, lemons and other citrus fruits, nuts and even chocolate.
Next Rosemary looked at the colour of the whisky and noted that unless it was extremely pale or very rich in colour she didn't feel that it was really worth mentioning. This is also true for olive oil but I would go even further and say that colour tells you absolutely nothing about the taste of an oil. Contrary to popular belief, the many colour differences in extra virgin olive oil in no way reflect the taste.
There is a widespread misconception that if an oil has a strong green colour it will be correspondingly strong in flavour, probably with a good deal of bitterness and pepper. This may well be true for 50%-60% of extra virgin olive oils, but the rest may be much milder in flavour. This is because the green colour is related to the chlorophyll content of the oil and some varieties of olive give a much greener colour to the oil than others. Conversely a paler, more yellow colour is attributed to very delicate oils or to oils that are too old. The chances of these ideas being correct is even less at around 20% to 30%
The next step is, of course, to taste the whisky or olive oil in the mouth. Rosemary describes how the tongue picks up any sweetness, bitterness, sourness and salt. The first two of these are important for whisky tasting but only bitterness is relevant to tasting olive oil. I often talk about sweet oils but by this I mean oils which are lacking in bitterness. They are not sweet in the sense of sugar sweet.
There are three basic taste attributes to extra virgin olive oil. These are fruitness, bitterness and pepper. The fruitiness takes in all those tastes and flavours which can be described with reference to our aroma and taste memories of other foods, aromas from the countryside and so on. The bitterness is often reminiscent of brown almond skins or tannin in wine or tea and the pepperiness may be a tickle at the back of the throat or a fully tingling mouth. Bitterness and pepper are not essential characteristics of good olive oil and the lack of either of them is not considered to be a fault.
It is a good idea to make some notes when you are tasting, particularly if you are going to base future purchases on that tasting. It is easy to forget how the first whisky or oil tasted when you get to the end of six or seven different examples. Rosemary has a very sophisticated programme and data base designed by her husband for recording her reactions.
But I simply make a short note describing the aromas, the tastes in the mouth and the aftertaste that is left in the mouth on swallowing. I often give an overall score out of 10 for how much the oil appeals to me.
For more detailed descriptions Rosemary talks about the style of the whisky. How light or how strong it is? What are the specific flavours tones and how in intense are they? It is exactly the same for extra virgin olive oil. Some oils have quite delicate flavours with little bitterness and low levels of pepper. Others are much more robust in style with very intense fruity flavours and strong bitterness and pepper and there are plenty in between. As an aid to my aroma and taste memory I have categorised the specific flavour characteristics I am likely to experience as herbaceous and vegetal, fruity fruits, nuts and stalks and run through these in my mind to see if any are present in the particular oil I am tasting.
Complexity and balance
However, when I am judging extra virgin olive oils it is not the specific flavour tones which are present in the oil or their degree of intensity that is important. There are award winning oils in all styles. I, like Rosemary, am looking for complexity of flavour. The more descriptive words I have written the better the oil!
Finally Rosemary tries the whisky with a little water. Of course, I do not add water to the oil but we do not sit about drinking olive oil on its own; is it used in cooking and served with food. So the next logical step is to think about how a particular oil will react to other foods and other ingredients. And that is where the fun truly begins.