I was lucky enough recently to judge the Northland Olive Oil Awards – congratulations to the gold medal EVOO winners: Chapel Hill Olive Oil and Olivado.

Obviously judging 46 olive oils in one day, I had to do a fair amount of research into the benefits and taste of olive oil, so here is all you need to know about EVOO – or Extra Virgin Olive Oil!

Olive Oil comes in three style categories:

  • Delicate
  • Medium
  • Intense

Delicate:

Generally will be seen in New Zealand in good, warm years and from warmer areas or cultivars where a higher proportion of the olives will have been picked when ripe. Gentle in character with a good, ripe, fruit aroma and flavours, often with underlying stone fruit or tropical characters. Some such oils could be expected to have fresh, nutty or almond overtones. Olive oils in the delicate class will be expected to be complex and balances and may have little pungency or peppery finish

Medium:

Typically from moderate to cool regions in New Zealand, usually pressed from a mix of fruit from straw through to blush, purple and black. Oils will be complex and well rounded with moderately intense aromas and flavours. Fruitiness may range from ‘green fruity’ to apples through to tomatoes. Some grassiness and/or herbaceous aromas and flavours are to be expected along with some moderate bitterness and pungency.

Intense:

Generally typical to cooler regions ot coooler years and may have higher percentage of unripe fruit. Full bodied olive oils with complex, robust and intensely fruity aromas and flavours, Fruitiness may range from ‘green fruity’ to green apples through to citrus, lemon and lime. Some grassiness and/or herbaceous aromas and flavours are to be expected along with moderate bitterness and pungency.

OLIVE OIL TASTING:

Olive oil is not just a cooking medium, it is a flavouring ingredient in its own right and a knowledge of its flavour characteristics helps in deciding how to mix and match it with other ingredients in a dish. Everyone has a taste memory bank to which they can refer back to when they come across a new food or dish which is unfamiliar to them.

Taste and flavour:

Taste: the sensations of the taste buds in the mouth. The sensation of flavour perceived in the mouth and throat on contact with a substance. The wider sense of taste is taking in many sensations that start before we even put the food on our tongues. Taste actually starts with looks (colour and appearance), smells, feels in the hand as well as in the mouth and even sound when eaten.

Flavour: defined as aroma, mingled sensation of smell and taste, distinctive taste. A chemical stimulation initiated by the receptors in the nose, taste buds in the mouth and nerve endings in the mouth, throat and nose. Principally comprises taste and aroma, it also incorporates experiences due to sight, touch and temperature. Past experience and personal preferences enrich ability to organise and verbalise this phenomenon.

We all taste different food and drinks and make judgments on them all the time. We learn the flavour of food by taking it in the mouth. Our assessments are made on the basis of personal preferences and past experience – very subjective. Professional tasters and food judges are also subjective but every effort is made to cut out as many of the personal elements as possible. Tastings are often done alone in booths with no distractions. Tastings are blind, colour is disguised and variables such as temperature and quantity are regulated.

OLIVE OIL AROMA:

The sense of smell: Thought to be the oldest and most primitive of all senses; it invokes memory in a particularly direct way. It is also the most sensitive of our senses. Physically the system works when complex, volatile substances released by food or drink come into contact with the myriads of highly complex olfactory cells in the nose. Stimuli from these cells are passed down the olfactory nerves to the brain where they are interpreted in the light of previous taste experiences.

The sense of taste: Taste buds on the tongue and soft palate are not able to pick up volatile flavours as the olfactory cells in the nose. Taste buds pick up four so-called primary elements: sweet, acid or sour; salty and bitter.

Smell will tell you a lot about the initial quality of olive oil, how fresh it is and if it has faults. Any assessment of the taste of olive oil is also influenced by the reaction of the mucous membranes and tiny hair follicles at the back of the throat to the hot or peppery feel of some oils.

Taste regions of the tongue:

The first sensation to occur is sweetness, conveyed to the brain from the taste buds on the tip of the tongue. This is followed by the sour and salty flavours picked up on the upper edges and sides of the tongue. And finally bitter taste buds at the back of the tongue.

The actual placement of these specialised taste buds and their degree of specialisation is not entirely agreed, but is obviously important that all the taste buds come into contact with the food or drink to be tasted. So a reasonable mouthful must be taken and it must be rolled over the surface of the tongue and around the mouth to achieve the greatest exposure.

The taste buds not only vary in the speed with which they react but also in the length of that reaction. Sour and salty flavours linger longer than sweetness. Bitter flavours are slow to develop. All of this is important as the taster must take account of their first impression and be aware of building sensations and then take account of the final impressions which may be different to those at the beginning.

Piquant or peppery flavours are an important part of some foods.  This attribute is not detected by either the taste buds or olfactory cells but by stimulation of the mucous membranes and follicles at the back of the throat.

OLIVE OIL TASTING TECHNIQUES:

During an official olive oil tasting, the technique would be as follows:

  1. Warm the olive oil gently – this starts to release the aromas in the oil. Swirl the glass.
  2. Take a good sniff and record first impressions – this is the fruitiness part.
  3. Take a good mouthful of the oil.
  4. Roll it around the mouth to cover the taste buds.
  5. Suck in some air through the teeth
  6. Swallow or spit.
  7. Make a note of all the effects and sensations.

Cleansing the palate between oils: apples, sparkling water, lemon water or plain yoghurt.

Experts on an accredited panel may taste 3-4 oils per day.

DESCRIBING OLIVE OIL:

  • mouthful
  • round
  • bitter
  • bland
  • divine
  • woody
  • cold
  • viscous
  • delicious
  • dry
  • wet
  • floral
  • free
  • fruity
  • fresh
  • hot
  • nutty
  • green
  • grassy
  • oily
  • ripe
  • rich
  • warm
  • tomatoes

EMOTIVE DESCRIPTIONS:

  • luscious
  • seductive
  • tantalising
  • generous
  • herbaceous
  • robust
  • gutsy
  • grunty
  • tangy
  • crisp
  • healthy
  • delicate
  • rich
  • finesse
  • complex
  • velvety
  • exotic
  • silk
  • sublime
  • racy
  • bold
  • oil with attitude
  • sunshine
  • bright
  • memorable
  • lively
  • inspirational
  • clear
  • cloudy
  • one coughs
  • two coughs
  • homely
  • romantic

In summary, life is too short to drink bad wine, so why use bad oil?

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