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29 Mar 2012

Understanding Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Understanding Extra Virgin Olive Oil

In a continuous effort to improve the quality of our extra virgin olive oil, Virginie Saverys invited a tasting panel leader from the Consorzio del Chianti to give our entire team a course on olive oil. Divided into three parts, the course examines the most common defects present in oils (which not only ruin the oil but can cause health problems), how to avoid common problems in the production of olive oil, and how to recognize top-notch oil.


Botanically speaking, the olive tree is not intelligent. It’s gullible. The tree goes into its blossoming phase after only a few warm days and it can be just as easily ruined by a frost. As a subtropical plant, the skin of the fruit is very thin; the stomata are tiny and therefore the fruit ruins quickly and ferments easily. The damp weather in Tuscany makes olive oil production a delicate business.


There are five main defects in olive oil. They range from “winey-vinegary,” when the olives are not pressed right away to the “burnt-heated” effect, which is due to anaerobic fermentation. The burnt-heated defect occurs when the press has problems, when the olive is broken wrong, and when the paste is exposed for too long. Burnt-heated oil can have hints of cheese, cocoa, mold, tomato leaves, or cut grass that has turned to hay. Olive oil can also be "rancid," which is usually caused by the press, and not by the olives themselves, and is due to oxidation. Rancidity makes oil smell like paint-thinner or Vinavil glue. "Mold" is another defect present in olive oil; this one affects the nose more than the mouth and occurs when olives are allowed to sit wet. And finally, when there is excessive oxidation the olive oil can resemble our least favorite defect of them all, "engine oil."


On the first day of the course, we tasted 10 different oils, each of them with pronounced defects. To fully appreciate each sample, your palate needs to be clear – which means no coffee or cigarettes or other food for at least half an hour prior to the event.  We followed the correct procedure for tasting: cupping the samples in our palms and heating them to 28 degrees C, we swirled them around to let the aromas release. We smelled at first with one nostril and then with the other and discussed our initial findings. Once we came to a consensus, which every tasting panel must do, we moved on to the tasting, slurping appropriately in order to feel the effects of the oil on the mouth and then allowing a small amount to cover our palates. A fascinating experience, but thank goodness for spittoons. 

In the oils we smelled and tasted, we found elements of engine oil, rancidity, moldy citrus and pepper (n.b: while peppery flavors are appealing, when they are located in one specific area it's a clear example of fresh rancidity). We noticed oils that smelled of oranges, and some that were too buttery and dense on the palate. More than one reminded us of animal fat.


We finished the first day of the course with the growing awareness that, as tasters of olive oil, we need to reset our palates and understand the most common defects that, sadly, saturate the market. Although much of the information we received was not new to the agronomists and the team that work on the Avignonesi olive oil, we are all better informed about the process and look forward to celebrating the harvest and production this year. From our trees to your table.

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