TerraOlivo Day #2: Variety is the Spice of Life
The soft sschick of protective glass covers sliding off official blue tasting glasses; the brusque schqqq schqqq schqqq of precisely warmed olive oil being aerated across official palates; the particular susurration of official paper rustling — these were the only sounds I heard when I walked into the spacious carpeted room off the lobby at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem.
Fewer than 2 km from the Mount of Olives and closer than 1 km from the most holy sites for the world’s three great Abrahamic religions, 18 people from some of olive oil’s most respected taste panels sat in deep concentration. It was Day #2 of TerraOlivo’s Mediterranean International Olive Oil Competition, and the tasting panels were carefully assessing single-varietal olive oils from 14 countries.
“Smoky, do you taste smoky?”, someone whispered across one of the round tables. “Sí, it is”. “Yes, I think you’re right, smoky” and other murmurs of assent. “How do you say ‘smoky’ in Hebrew?” Judges from Spain, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay and Israel all speak “olive oil”, as well as a food and wine person’s version of Esperanto, and now they were clicking as a team; confidently dispensing observations, exchanging insights and sharing culture in the language of olive oil organoleptics. Click here to read Nancy Ash’s Tasting Advice.
Another table to my left, “flowers”, “yes, floral”, “…and buttery”. More paper rustling.
If you have never tasted fresh extra virgin olive oil — if all you consume is grocery store olive oil labeled “pure” or “lite” — you might wonder at the activity. “Pure” (an official grade of olive oil) and “lite” (a meaningless marketing term referring to sensory experience) both refer to the same thing: an olive oil which has been refined and deodorized to remove all aroma, flavor and nutrients. It’s just fat.
If you purchase a certified extra virgin olive oil, however — maybe a DOP oil from Italy or a COOC certified oil from California for instance — then you have probably detected a pleasant aroma of fresh fruit and at least a slight bitterness or pungency when you first open and taste it.
As with chocolate, coffee and wine, olive oil is produced from a fruit which has many different varieties (aka cultivars), and each of these has particular attributes characteristic to them. Sometimes producers blend different varieties together — many olive oils from Tuscany are known for this — and sometimes producers mill and bottle a single type of olive oil.
There are many hundreds of varieties of olives — I have read there are thousands, but not all are commercially viable — and depending on growing conditions, harvest date, milling technique and other factors different results can be achieved. (Ah, once again, just like wine!)
TerraOlivo’s second day of judging oils was focused on assessing 29 distinctive mono-cultivars or single-varietal extra virgin olive oils from 14 countries. Some varieties, such as frantoio or picual were popular enough to have multiple entries, so once again, 63 total oils were tasted and rated today.
The entries for varietals this year included Barnea, Souri, Maalot, Picual/Martea, Arbequina, Blanqueta, Cornicabra, Empeltre, Farga, Frantoio, Hojiblanca, Koroneiki, Lechin, Manzanilla, Arauco, Criolla, Mission, Ascolano, Pendolina, Moraiolo, Nabali, Leccino, Picholine, Grossane, and five others which cannot be named until after the results are announced as they are so singular in their origin.
To paraphrase my brother-in-law, “There’s a whole world of olive oil out there!” I hope this post inspires you to explore some of them, for variety — after all — is the spice of life!
TerraOlivo 2010 will conclude judging tomorrow with the assessment of flavored olive oils. Results will be announced 28 July at a Gala Awards dinner and also on this blog.
For my friends who are wondering, we are not spending every waking hour in our hotel! We have been privileged to see some moving and beautiful things, both ancient and deep. I’ll be sharing some stories with you in the future, just as I did with Tunisia, so please stay tuned.