Written by Curtis Cord
Founder of Olive Oil Times and Executive Director of ICC’s Olive Oil Sommelier Certification program
There’s never been so much interest in high-quality extra virgin olive oil. Why?
Two reasons: First, there are the health benefits revealed in a never-ending stream of research that credits components in EVOO with helping us live longer, healthier lives.
And, there’s the taste. Extra virgin olive oil is an unprocessed fruit juice that reflects its terroir much like wine, and chefs around the world are only beginning to discover how to use different olive varieties to elevate their dishes to heights they never imagined.
But something else that has come to the forefront is the importance of choosing a high-quality olive oil to get the full advantage of these benefits. There’s a huge difference between a really great olive oil and one pretending to be. Mislabeled and substandard oils are a major concern for people who are responsible for making choices in this category.
Luckily for us, there are more excellent olive oils, from more regions, than ever before. At this year’s New York International Olive Oil Competition (an annual event that was launched at the ICC five years ago) there were 910 entries from 27 countries — and more winners than in past editions.
That’s great news for those of us who care a lot about what we eat and seek the best quality, especially in products as important as extra virgin olive oil.
But, there’s a problem. The only way to really know if an olive oil is good or not is to learn how to taste it. Most people can’t tell a high-quality olive oil that deserves the investment from an old, rancid one that shouldn’t be on the store shelves, to begin with.
In fact, we’ve been eating poor-quality olive oil for so long that a recent study found most people actually chose a rancid oil that has virtually none of the touted health benefits, over a fresh, healthful one simply because they didn’t know what they should be looking for and selected the one that seemed more familiar to them.
So what does good extra virgin olive oil taste like?
First of all, it can’t reveal what we call “defects” in olive oil sensory assessment. Some of the most common are rancidity (basically spoiled fruit, like a banana that has turned black), fustiness (when the olives have undergone advanced fermentation often by sitting around before they were milled) and muddy (that results from unclean milling equipment).
There are also what are called the “positive characteristics of olive oil” — fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency — that are indicators of fresh, healthy fruit and careful processing. Trained tasters look for oils that exhibit a nice balance of the three.
To recognize defects and positive attributes take time and practice, but with so much at stake, more chefs, producers, food buyers, foodies and others are finding it well worth the effort to know how to assess the quality of this vital food for themselves, their families and the companies they represent.
The Olive Oil Program at the International Culinary Center brings the world’s foremost olive oil experts and educators to the New York and California campuses in a comprehensive series of courses spanning production, quality management, and advanced sensory assessment.
There has never been a greater need to foster a deeper understanding of this important food among today’s culinary leaders, and there is no better place than the International Culinary Center to lead the way to greater knowledge.