Nov 132012

The International Olive Council awarded a perfect score to the olive oil taste testers (sensory panel) at the Australian Oils Research Laboratory in Wagga Wagga, Australia.

This is quite a big deal. People who ‘taste’ olive oil for a living must be able to make very subtle distinctions among the flavors and sensations present in olive oil, and this is very difficult to do.

This past July I attended the introduction to olive oil tasting and the master-level sensory evaluation courses at the University of California at Davis. The auditorium full of students, including me, spent days listening to lectures, taking notes, and tasting many olive oils. The lectures were in Italian and were translated by Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers Fine Wine and Gourmet Foods Italian Grocery Store in Sacramento, California.

Until I took these courses, I had no idea how tough it is to correctly evaluate olive oils. The main things that a sensory panel are looking for are defects in the oils. The defects are a very specific list. Here are some of the more common defects and a link to the list from the Olive Oil Times: Fusty, Musty, Muddy Sediment, Winey-Vinegary, Metallic, and Rancid. There are other defects which are less common but problematic none-the-less.

So why is it that defects are what a sensory panel is really looking for? As our Italian teachers told us, if there is a defect then there is no point in continuing a sensory evaluation. The oil can never be designated as a virgin olive oil and must be sent for refining to be used as a lower grade oil know as lampante (lamp oil) or tossed out.

While you are looking at the link above provided by the Olive Oil Times, take note of the positive attributes. Maybe you have noticed some of these when you taste your extra virgin olive oil. If you haven’t, give it a try, and don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t distinguish the flavors because it is very difficult to do. People who taste-test olive oil professionally take continuous courses to stay on track. I was only moderately good at this and will never sit on a sensory panel. One thing I can do, is tell that there is a defect present, I’m just not good at identifying the defect.

Many congratulations to the Wagga Wagga sensory panel on a perfect score. You have Olive Crazy’s deep admiration.

Wagga sensory panel obtains perfect score in olive oil test | Southern Cross

May the sun shine through your branches.

Feb 272012

Years ago I was part of a small group of Georgia Legislators invited to attend a few scotch tastings hosted by adult beverage giant Diageo. I have been a fan of good scotch since I was allowed, at age eighteen (legal age in Georgia in the 70’s) to sample some of my Dad’s scotch collection.

At these scotch tastings I learned that I had a gift for detecting and identifying the flavors that made up each scotch. Of course I was at that time, and still am, untrained so I had to associate some flavors and smells with things I recognized. My favorite association was what I named ‘old Bandaid’. Some levels of peat smoke actually smell like the Bandaid brand adhesives from my childhood. Bandaids don’t have that distinctive odor any longer, but I was with a group of people who were my age or older and they understood what I meant.

Both of my parents were very sensory oriented. You could often find Mom sticking her nose up to a fresh cut pine board or Dad running his hands across the stones of a rock wall. After a childhood of watching them do this and feeling embarrassed by their naked admiration for the physical world, I turned into them.

Even though I won’t be becoming a professional olive oil taster, for reasons explained in my article yesterday, at home I carefully taste each bottle of extra virgin olive oil I open. I run through a mental checklist of what I am tasting and if it’s not defective I decide how I might use the oil in my cooking. As I explained in an article from last week, if the oil is defective, it goes straight into the trash bin. Why buy food that is fresh and increasingly more expensive and ruin it with a nasty oil? There is no compellingly reason to do that.

Tasting olive oil is different from tasting alcohol-based beverages. The alcohol in scotch, wine, or other spirits seems to act more like a vehicle for the smells and flavors, transporting them to your senses. With olive oil the taster has to do the transporting him or her self by employing strippaggio. The flavors do not seem to ‘bloom’ well unless strippaggio is employed. The easy way to find this out is to place a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in your mouth and just swallow. What did you taste? Could you identify any flavors? Then place a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in your mouth and from the front of the tongue begin to suck in air as the oil coats your mouth all the way to the back of your tongue, then swallow. Ask yourself again – what did you taste and could you identify any flavors? The answer will be yes. By the way the air sucking thing you just did is strippaggio.

Thanks to writing about olives and olive oil, and to making my tasting opinions known to all and sundry, my friends and family have ordained me an olive oil tasting expert. If they have some olive oil in the cabinet, they will present me with it and ask me to taste it. If its not labelled extra virgin or already opened then I get to say no. If it is labelled extra virgin and unopened then I feel honor bound to give it a go.

This past weekend I was in Savannah and popped over to my friend, Carol’s, house with a bottle of wine. We drank and chatted and she invited me back for breakfast the next morning before I headed back home. After breakfast Carol said, “Oh. I almost forgot. Someone gave me a bottle of extra virgin olive oil and I want you to tell me if its any good.” I gave her a little speech about the things I might be able to detect and the things I might not. She thrust the bottle at me.

We carefully read the labelling on the front and back: EVOO – Rachel Ray – Product of Italy – Expiration date in 2013 – Colavita … I grabbed a tablespoon and poured. I cupped my hands around the spoon and waited until it had warmed some, smelled, then tasted. The smell was oily which didn’t bode well. Then I had a tasting experience that confused me. It confused me so much that I forgot until almost too late to chase it with a caramel or peppermint.

The oil was greasy and rancid, but had a lot of pepper in the back of the throat. What did that mean? I didn’t think it was possible for such defects as greasy and rancid to be present along with a positive attribute – pepper. If you know, please tell me.

I got a piece of candy in time to keep from getting sick and unceremoniously said, “Chuck it!” I chewed my caramel and hit the road. Goodbye Carol. Goodbye Savannah. Good riddance Rachel Ray EVOO.

May the sun shine through your branches.

Feb 262012

My engineer/chemist husband periodically goes for training to up his game and believes I should do the same. After all, the world of olives and olive oil is not just fun, it’s very technical. Since last year Mr. Olive Crazy has been trying to get me to go to an olive oil tasting class, and I have managed to come up with an excuse each time.

First there was the Olive Oil Sensory Class in Paso Robles, California last fall. I made up some lame excuse about it being out of the way, but then got really sick so I got out of that one.

Then there was the Organizzazione Nazionale Assaggiatori Olio di Oliva’s (ONAOO) Olive Oil Tasting Course in English which was held last November in Imperia, Italy. I had the week off from everything, including the kids, and Mr. Olive Crazy insisted I attend. I muttered something about laundry and being tired. There was no laundry and I wasn’t tired, but he bought it.

Now there’s the Sensory Evaluation of Olive Oil Course on March 30th and 31st at the University of California, Davis campus. The only conceivable excuse I have is that the Georgia Legislature might be in Session on March 30th, but that’s not likely. I guess I must ‘fess up and reveal “My Dark Secret”.

I am terrified. I know that sounds crazy but bear with me here. Look closely at the description for the lecture and tasting that will take place at 10:45 am on March 30th. I even highlighted the thing that scares me.

Lecture: What is Olive Oil; How Olive Oil is Made; Effects of Processing on Oil Flavor; Classic Olive Oil Defects and Positive Attributes.Tasting: What Makes an Oil Extra Virgin (6 oils to taste).
Paul Vossen, UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor, Sonoma-Marin Counties

I have a finely-honed gag reflex, and I know what will happen if I taste a nasty olive oil. Yup – that.

Thanks to those pregnancies two decades ago, I can now barf on command, and the command comes from my brain. Describe something nasty to me – barf! Point out the squashed animal in the road – barf! Make me taste and swallow something fusty, moldy, grubby, greasy, rancid, muddy, or metallic – barf!

I am a little sad that I can’t play with all the other folks who taste and judge numerous olive oils for fun and profit, but I most certainly will continue to carefully check the flavors of each extra virgin olive oil that I buy. I just won’t share with you my physical reaction to a bad olive oil other than I pitched it in the trash.

May the sun shine through your branches.

May 182011

The area of sensory evaluation is very interesting. Everything we eat or drink that has been prepared in some way has gone through a sensory evaluation process. Olive oil is no different.

As I type this article some country’s contestant is being tasted and judged at the 2011 Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition. The judges who make up the tasting panels are trained, some more formally than others, in how to evaluate by using their senses, samples of extra virgin olive oils submitted for the competition. How are they doing this and what are they looking for?

The panelists are looking for indicators in two main areas: positive sensory attributes and negative sensory defects. These attributes and defects can be described through smell, taste, or feel. It may seem strange but seeing is not one of the senses that is used for an EVOO sensory evaluation, in fact, seeing is discouraged. The way it is discouraged is little cobalt blue slightly bowl-shaped glasses are used so the tester doesn’t mistakenly make a taste judgement based on the color of the oil.

The little blue glass is warmed to human body temperature. A plastic lid covers the top of the glass to help warm the oil and trap the aromas. First the taster puts his or her nose in the glass to identify by smell each aroma. Then the taster takes enough oil into his or her mouth making sure the oil covers the tongue, air is then sucked in to oxygenate the oil, and it is swallowed. Attributes and defects that have been detected through smell, taste, and feel from the first smell, to the taste and feel in the mouth, to the smell carried through the mouth to the back of the nose, to the feel at the back of the mouth and throat, are all studiously recorded by the taste panelist. A slice of Granny Smith apple and a drink of plain water and the process begins again.

Here is a list from the International Olive Council’s “Glossary of Olive Tasting Terms” of some of the sensory attributes and defects that panelists are looking for in EVOO:

Positive – Attributes

  • Apple
  • Almond
  • Artichoke
  • Astringent – puckering sensation created by tannins
  • Banana
  • Bitter – Characteristic of oil obtained from unripe (green) olives, this is perceived on the back of the tongue. Note that bitterness is an important part of an oil’s balance of flavors.
  • Buttery
  • Fresh – good aroma, fruity, not oxidized
  • Fruity – Set of olfactory sensations characteristic of good (unspoiled) fresh olive fruit, either ripe or unripe. This attribute is perceived by smell, either directly or retro-nasally (back of the nose).
  • Grass
  • Green – young, fresh, fruity oil (often mixed with bitter)
  • Spicy – bitter cough sensation at the back of the throat
  • Green Leaf – A sensation obtained when in the press a small quantity of fresh olive leaves are added. This is a trick which is done to approximate the genuine green taste of green olives.
  • Harmonious – All the qualities of the oil blend and work well with each other.
  • Hay – dried grass flavor
  • Melon – perfumy (ethyl acetate)
  • Musky, Nutty, Woody – trace characteristics which are very pleasing when not overpowering
  • Pungent – Peppery sensation perceived at back of the throat that is indicative of the oil’s freshness. Also a characteristic of pressing unripe olives.
  • Rotund – pasty body which fills and satisfies without aromatic character, always from mature olives
  • Soave – characteristic from mature olives
  • Sweet – opposite of bitter, stringent or pungent, found in mellow oils

Negative – Defects

  • Fusty – Characteristic obtained from olives that were stored in piles prior to pressing, which causes an advanced stage of anaerobic (without oxygen) fermentation.
  • Musty – Moldy flavor in oils obtained when a large quantity of the olive fruit has developed fungi and yeast as a result of its being stored in humid conditions for several days. This defect is detected retro-nasally (through the back of the nostrils after swallowing).
  • Winey/Vinegary – Flavor that is reminiscent of wine or vinegar. This defect occurs due to aerobic (using oxygen) fermentation in olives which leads to the formation of acetic acid, ethylacetate and ethanol.
  • Muddy Sediment – Characteristic of oil that has been left in contact with sediment in tanks and vats. This defect occurs from poor storage conditions after the oil is pressed.
  • Metallic – Flavor that is reminiscent of metals. This occurs when the oil has been in prolonged contact with metallic surfaces during crushing. Nowadays it is unusual to find this defect because modern presses are made from stainless steel which does not react with the olives.
  • Rancid – Flavor in oils which have undergone oxidation. This is the most common defect; it can occur either before or after bottling and if a bottle, either opened or unopened, has been exposed to light and heat.
  • Heated or Burnt – Occurs when oil is exposed to excessive and/or prolonged heat during processing.
  • Hay-Wood – Flavor of oil produced from olives that have dried out.
  • Greasy – Flavor reminiscent of diesel oil, mineral oil, or mechanical grease.
  • Vegetable Water – Flavor acquired by prolonged contact with the vegetable water that is a by-product of pressing olives.
  • Brine – Obtained from olives that were brined (such as table olives) before pressing.
  • Esparto – Flavor obtained from using new mats made from esparto (a type of grass) when pressing olives.
  • Earthy – Flavor obtained from olives with dirt or mud on them that have not been washed prior to pressing.
  • Grubby – Flavor obtained from olives that have been attacked by the olive fly, which causes disintegration of the olives before they are harvested.
  • Frozen – Flavor obtained from olives that experienced heavy frost or prolonged cold temperatures before being harvested and pressed.

May the sun shine through your branches.