How to Taste Olive Oils - A Lesson from Spain

The kind of oil used in cooking surely defines the taste and aroma of the food. But there is a difference between various kinds of olive oils as well. Here is an introduction into this world

By: Soumya Jain Agarwal

Posted on: June 20, 2019

Bowls of olives and olive oil

I won’t deny it, but I had always been intrigued by the quaint olive oil stores, located in many of the picturesque towns across America, allowing patrons to do a wee bit of olive oil tasting before buying a bottle. Mostly, there would be big closed vessels full of olive oil, with tiny plastic cups placed on the side for you to pick up, pour a drop and taste it. Or there would be breads placed alongside bowls of oils. Pick the bread, dip in oil and taste it away. I tried all methods, but could never understand how to discern between the various olive oils.

And then I was introduced to Olive Oils from Spain, a non-profit organization established by different operators in the Spanish olive oil industry (olive growers, cooperatives, factories, bottlers and exporters). Landing in Chicago for an educative campaign, I got my chance to further delve into this lesser known universe.

Olive Oils from Spain Black Bull Chicago

Whence Thou Came

Beginning from Greece, olive oil was discovered and began to be used in the BC era when various Mediterranean civilisations began to grow olive trees and extract juice from the olives. Historians assume that it was the Phoenicians who introduced olive cultivation in Spain around the year 1,100 BC. The Phoenicians, who came from the Near East, had originally begun cultivating olive oil around the year 5,000 BC. However, it was during the Roman occupation (year 206 BC) that the crop reached its full potential in the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, Hispania (as Spain was called during the Roman occupation) was the main supplier of olive oils to the entire Roman Empire. This has been proven by archaeologists such as Professor José Remesal from the University of Barcelona. 

Talking about Monte Testaccio in Rome, Professor Remesal says, “It is an absolutely artificial mountain, comprised entirely of the remains of amphorae [tall ancient Greek or Roman jars with two handles and a narrow neck], with a perimeter measuring nearly one kilometer, and a height of almost 50 meters, and which in its heyday was much larger. It was an organized garbage dump. Today, it suggests to us that 80-85% of the Olive Oil consumed in the capital from the era of Augustus until the 3rd century A.D. came from the Baetica [one of the three Roman provinces in Hispania]. Our geologists have weighed it and measured its volume. There is about half million tons of ceramic material left, which when divided by 30 kilos – the approximate weight of each one – we reach the conclusion that there are still some 25 million amphorae remaining. If you multiply that figure by 70 kilos of oil per amphora, we have 1,750,000 tons of oil. The debris still left at Testaccio is enough to support the diet of a half million people for 250 years,” he said

Olive Oil bottles

Spain continues to supply the largest amount of ‘liquid gold’ globally. The land of Antoni Gaudi produces an astonishing 262 varieties of olives on its fertile land, and 50% of all olive oil available in the world today. 

The only oil to be made from a fruit instead of a seed, and an important part of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is studied to offer far-reaching health benefits. The predominant fatty acid in olive oil is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, which reduces inflammation, and may even have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer. Monounsaturated fats are also quite resistant to high heat, making extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) a healthy, safe choice for cooking. Don’t go above 365oF though.

Several large studies demonstrate that people who consume olive oil have a much lower risk of stroke and higher heart health. Extra virgin olive oil lowers blood pressure, protects “bad” LDL cholesterol particles from oxidation and improves the function of blood vessels. Olive oil consumption has lower risk of obesity. And when combined with a Mediterranean diet, olive oil can reduce risk of type 2 diabetes. EVOO also has antibacterial properties.

With Spain proudly boasting the highest average life expectancy (of approximately 83 years), as analysed and published by Bloomberg, you know the olive oil from the country is worth its weight. 

A Sip and Whiff

Olive Oil tasting at Black Bull Chicago

We all had gathered at Black Bull in Chicago, Chef Marcos Campos’ restaurant in the city, to cognize olive oils a bit more. New York’s Chef Seamus Mullen, a James Beard nominee, and champion of healthy eating, accompanied Chef Campos. “Olive oil is the glue that holds my food together,” said Chef Mullen. Expert oleologist, Alfonso Fernandez, was also part of the event, who led our olive oil tasting session.

Yes, olive oils can be tasted, just like wines. And the process is also similar, but there are some pointed differences. Let us take you through step-by-step. 

Step 1: Ensure you have the right apparatus. Olive oil tasting should usually be done in a flat-bottomed, dark-colored glass, because the color of the oil is not a defining criterion in the quality or taste of olive oil. The color should not impair your judgment on the taste of the olive oil. 

Step 2: After pouring the one or two spoons of olive oil in the glass, put one hand below the glass, and the other on top to cover the glass. Then rub the bottom of the glass, for one to two minutes, while keeping it covered, to warm up the oil a bit. 

Olive oil blue glass for tasting

Step 3: Then hold the glass with your bottom hand, and uncovering the glass a little bit with the other hand (don’t completely remove your upper hand), stick your nose in to get a whiff of the smells wafting up. The intensity of the aroma could be mild, medium or robust. The EVOO should remind you of a ripe or unripe fruit. You could define it as a white (unripe) or a green (ripe) smell.

Step 4: Then take a sip of the EVOO while noisily inhaling in air. This practice coaxes out more flavors from the EVOO. After swirling the oil in your mouth for about 22 seconds, swallow it. Don’t swallow it immediately as you may get instant spiciness in the throat. Cleanse your palate with a slice of green apple or flavorless bread or even yogurt before sampling the next EVOO. 

We tasted three EVOOs during the session: Cornicabra, Coupage and Hojiblanca. Like wines, the names of these olive oils come from the fruit they are extracted from. 

The Cornicabra EVOO had a light or mild nose with references to green grass and banana. Sipping it in, it had a velvety texture, demonstrating a perfect balance between the nose and the taste. According to our oleologist, Mr. Fernandez, the Cornicabra EVOO behaves well with frying and cooking. Making eggs sunny side up? Make it with this one.

Olive oil liquid gold

Coupage, which is basically a mix of different EVOOs, had a medium intensity of aroma – a bit more than the Cornicabra EVOO we had tasted. It had more ‘green’ in it also with a taste of orange zest and fig leaves playing on our palate. It had a slight bitterness as well, due to the astringency which comes from tannins, but not like the tannins in wine making. These were being released due to the grinding of our teeth. I swallowed some of this EVOO vey quickly by mistake, and I did feel an intense spiciness in my throat! Having said that, this coupage had much more flavor than Cornicabra. Surprise tip? This olive oil will be great drizzled on a simple vanilla ice cream!

The Hojiblanca EVOO had a medium nose with a green aroma again, but this time with tomatoes coming to mind. The taste was again a little bitterer, more astringent. It had a highly intense flavor, much more than the other two we had. “That’s why it’s important to taste olive oil before cooking,” said Mr. Fernandez, because when using this oil, you would reduce the quantity of pepper or cayenne in your recipe. 

As Mr. Fernandez very rightly explained, the role of olive oil in food is like that of parenting. The nose and taste of the EVOO used decides the fate of the final dish, even if it’s very subtle. This is one lesson which will always reverberate in my kitchen and in my home now.

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