The Olive Test

Our house is a short walk from Frantoio A.– a family run olive farm. G., the owner, chattered away in high speed Italian as he showed us the factory but, save something about air being dangerous for olive oil, I had precious little to tell the children when they quizzed me on how to make olive oil.

As we left G. presented us with a beautiful bottle ‘A.’, the ‘optima’ olive oil: I should consider the quality of this olive oil to be comparable to the renowned (and expensive) Brunello de Montepulciano wine.  H. was thoroughly affected by G.’s gift, its representation of his pride and his desire to share the best with us.  I love that H. immediately started to think of things that were special to her that she could share with people who visit us.So, we were sure that this beautiful bottle was good olive oil – but the best? Not only were we unconvinced of his impartiality, we were also unconvinced of our own abilities to taste the difference.

P1170688We were, therefore, delighted when Sarah and Paolo and their children stayed with us, fresh from completing an eight day (!) olive oil tasting course. We held back on vino rosso for a bit to keep our palates clean for tasting and set out for Sarah and Paolo the four oils with which found ourselves: Frantoio A., two other locally produced oils and an oil flavoured with mandarins. We’d been quite excited by the latter when we found it in the house but Sarah took one disparaging look: flavoured oils are considered sacrilege among aficionados of the industry.

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Tom and I were ready to learn and H. was delighted to join in the action.

Allora, who would have known one needs small espresso-cup vessels for tasting olive oil? I was all set to get ‘il pane’ out and dip away, but no, we started by holding our hands over the cup and gently swirling the oil around to bring the aromas out and bring the olive oil up to a good temperature.

P1170687Next a grand, ungainly sniff of the oil. This was fascinating – the smells ranged from strong, fresh and refreshing cut grass through to virtually nothing. The mandarin scented oil was another matter entirely and even at this stage, I could see why Sarah had been Lady Disdain.

After a good smell, we were to take a tiny sip of the oil, roll it in our mouth to coat our tongue then make a rolling hissing action at the sides of our tongues; wait a moment then swallow a little if desired.

Do try this at home! It’s actually really hard to sip just the tiniest amount of oil – I took far too much the first time so was overpowered by oil. I had to pause, try to clear my mouth a little before trying again. I practised the hissing swishing action with a bit of water then went for the oil. The difference between oils was astounding – I urge you to try two different oils – preferably one that’s a little more special next to a regular supermarket extra virgin oil. We had nothing at all in the region of the latter – ours were all from local small holdings, and yet the difference was astounding. The finer the oil, the more bitter the taste both at the edge of the tongue and also the slight after taste as it reaches the back of the throat. The best oil had Tom’s eyes watering with its bitterness. Sarah and Paolo were officiating and we had a clear, unanimous winner: Frantoio A. is top quality.

So, I was all set to save A Quality Oil and use it on special occasions. Absolutely not, Sarah berated me! I should use it up now and enjoy it at its best for a whole gamut of reasons – heat, oxygen, light will all be affecting this beautiful oil. Italians would say that the worst of three non flavoured oils should be used only for oiling chopping boards and the like, but Sarah and Paolo rather draw the line at this cavalier attitude to olive oil which is still far superior to any mainstream oil we find in the shops. Use the least bitter oil to cook with and enjoy the best liberally on salads, on pasta, to make tapenade.

IMG_4296 H oil picture

H.’s drawing of olive oil production after listening to Sarah explain how extra virgin oil is extracted from olives.

I fear that I might return from Italy with tastes above my station. With a far clearer knowledge now of how oil is produced and more precise understanding of what ‘extra virgin’ and cold pressed mean, I am persuaded as to why I should not buy any of the big label olive oils in the future. Here, I can source top quality olive oil at a good price… it looks like we’ll be shipping it over to the UK on our return or buying direct from our soon-to-be suppliers, Sarah and Paolo.

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