Sunday, June 29, 2008

Friends In High Places, Plus The Intricacies Of Tasting Olive Oil...

Some people are grateful for having friends in the jewelry trade. Others love their carpenter buddies, who come by and put up shelves at the drop of a hat.

As for me, I’m happy that one of H(usband's) colleagues is in the olive oil business and every so often a very heavy sloshing package arrives from Spain. It is an extraordinary olive oil from Úbeda that I’ve been using for years now. It’s my gold standard.

Úbeda is a beautiful town in Spain’s southern Andalusian region, renowned for its olive production, as well as its beautiful pottery. “Maybe out of deference to the humble olive, which impacts on every family in this city of 60,000 people, you can buy pottery in any hue or color…as long as it’s green.

Recently just such a package arrived. I opened it up expectantly. But what’s this? It’s different. It’s in a pale green modern looking can,

instead of the old worldly lithographed one I’m used to.

Oh good, there’s a note. It’s from C, wanting me to try his new oil. Ok by me.

I prepare a few slices of bread, both fresh and toasted, and pour the new oil and my usual oil into small containers so I can compare.

I taste the new one. It is slightly different. There’s more bite in the back of the tongue, the hallmark of a fruity extra virgin olive oil. I taste my old oil. Yummy, but not as sharp. It has great flavor without being too stinging on the tongue.Oh wait, I didn’t clean my palate in between bites. I have to start over. I cut more bread, making sure to have a plain piece between each oil.

Ok, the new one is definitely different, but how? There seems to be more happening when I taste the new one. I was right before. It does taste sharper. It has that bitter bite.

Next I have plain bread…then my usual oil dripped onto the bread. Ah, I know my Ubeda olive oil like the back of my hand. I love the flavor it gives both when cooking AND when used on salads. It has a rounder flavor. It doesn’t assault your tongue like the new one does. (That’s not a condemnation of the new oil. High quality extra virgin olive oil should grab your attention.)

I try them both on toast this time. Very, very tasty.

Now that I’ve worked my way through three quarters of a loaf of bread, what do I think?

I suppose it’s human nature to like what we like and know what we know. I definitely am preferring my old olive oil. I decide to do a bit of research.

Perhaps there’s a different way to taste oil. Gazooks, there is! You don’t use bread at all (so much for scarfing down almost an entire oiled-up baguette on my own). You taste olive oil in a similar way to tasting a fortified wine like port.

You pour it into a container. Warm it in your hands. Look at it and smell it. Then you take a small sip, aspirating in some oxygen (as in wine tasting) as you spread it across your tongue quickly.

OMG, there’s an entire table of flavors and characteristics and smells and EVEN DEFECTS that I have to go through to analyze my olive oils. All I wanted to do was to see how the two were different… I wasn’t interested in writing a thesis about them.
Not only is there a table, but it turns out that an olive oil tasting
wheel has been developed with SEVENTY TWO different characteristics to taste the oil for – the strangest being “formic”, which upon more investigation turns out to have to do with the acid given off by ants.

Now how a person (especially one tasting olive oil) would know what this acid tastes like, is beyond me, but I certainly intend to use that term the next time I’m in the company of highfalutin’ olive oil tasters.
As for my enhanced breadless tasting, what did I find? To tell you the truth the same thing I found in my first tasting with no palate cleansing; AND the same thing I found in my SECOND tasting on plain bread with plain bread in between; AND the same thing I found in my THIRD tasting on toast with plain bread in between. The new olive oil was stronger, more bitter, “grassier” than my old one.

Oh, and one other thing, upon further reflection, the new one definitely tasted a bit formic.

Postscript: I notified C of my preliminary findings.

He told me that both oils were made from Picual olives. He said that really the only difference is that the new one has a "denominación de origen" classification, and so those olives come only from Úbeda. And, he added, “in theory, both olive oils should be very similar”…
So much for my olive oil tasting abilities...but the good news is I now have enough olive oil to not only cook with, but to do anything else I choose.


By Costas the Greek said...

I guess you would say I'm one of those "high-falutin'" olive oil tasters and I don't think I've ever used "formic" to describe the oils that I review. I guess I don't want to ponder the thought of ant flavors in any olive oil. Yech.

Nice post. Spain has a lot of great, undervalued oil.

Sue said...

I don't just love olive oil, I LOVE YOUR BLOG! It's fantastic. Where WERE you when I was spending all that time and calories slathering olive oil on bread, when I should have just been slurping and inhaling?!!

And I'm happy to hear that ant flavors form no part of your tasting ritual.

Emiline said...

How interesting!

You've got some serious connections - I'm jealous. I wouldn't mind eating some bread with olive oil. I think that sounds better than tasting it by the spoonful.

Now you need to get busy with your skincare.

Sue said...

I know! I'm lucky.

I have to admit I'd rather massage the oil into a chicken breast or drizzle it over a ciabatta than rub it into my dry elbows or cracked heels...

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

I don't think I would have the patience to try to taste the nuances of olive oil. I'd probably give up quickly. I did see a show (probably back when FN was still reasonably intelligent) where they showed a CA olive farm and showed how they do the tastings with all of the accompanied slupring.

I love that plate and jar. Goregous.

Pam said...

How lucky for you to have a good olive oil connection. I think a good olive oil can really make or break a dish. And plus, there is all that fun tasting!

Adam said...

I had no idea about how intricate olive oil can be. I imagine it can vary like wine, or beer, or chocolate. Thanks for teaching me something today :)

Sue said...

Hey Rach,
The next time you’re cooking with a really good olive oil (which I’m sure is EVERYtime) just give it a tiny sip and swish it around. You’ll be amazed at all the activity on your tongue.

I love my pottery from Úbeda…

Hi Pam,
I know, THAT’S a valuable connection. The other thing about olive oil is that I keep my Spanish gold in the refrigerator. There is nothing worse than a slightly rancid taste in the back of your tongue, when you’re using old or not well-stored olive oil.

Hi Adam,
You are absolutely right. Check out Costas the Greek’s site (1st comment) and you’ll see just how complicated olive oil, and its tasting, can be.

Heather said...

This post inspired me to write about my own experiences in Ubeda. The post turned out to be so long that it isn't finished yet!

Cynthia said...

I am GREEN with envy!

Sue said...

Hi Heather,
I'd LOVE to read about your travels to Úbeda. Hurry up! I was there eons and eons ago, before I knew that much about olive oil. But I did know about the pottery and I love looking at mine everyday.

You're funny.