Olive Oil Tasting w/ Olivette: Things I Never Knew...

sherri daley

Since I attended a 2-hour olive oil tasting at Olivette, co-sponsored by The Fairfield Green Food Guide, I am deeply ashamed of my olive oil buying habits and I promise to be a better person.

I thank Alina Lawrence, co-owner and general manager of Olivette, an olive oil and vinegar tasting room and specialty foods store in Darien, for her inspired decision to invite professional olive oil taster Arden Kremer to host the tasting. I thank Ms. Kremer for her patience with my sweetly stupid questions, and I will change my ways before someone sees what I am pouring on my salad. 

Historically, I have bought olive oil that comes in a bottle that has lots of Italian writing on it in squirrely script, maybe some pictures of olive trees. Also, sometimes there is a sale on industrial-sized cans of olive oil which I know will last me years because I live alone and do not use olive oil for any purpose outside of the kitchen. Sometimes I buy a clear glass bottle because the oil is kind of green and looks pretty on a shelf near the stove.

What I didn’t know was the olive oil industry is rife with fraud. Manufacturers have been known to add color, blend oils together, and add misleading claims on their labels. “Bottled in Italy” may mean just that; the olives may have come from anywhere. The phrase “first cold press” means nothing when it comes to quality, and “unfiltered” is a bad thing, not something we should be looking for.  A manufacturer can slap “virgin” or “extra virgin” on its product willy-nilly. Frankly, I didn’t think there was a difference; I mean, virgin is virgin, right, girls?  But there is a difference when it comes to olive oil.  “Virgin” could be blended with a substandard oil. We want “extra virgin”.

There is an organization which tries to regulate the olive oil industry, the International Olive Oil Council, which requires that its members submit oil from each harvest to chemical analyses and a sensory assessment (taste test) to determine its freedom from defects. But not all countries are members. The US is not a member, for example, and there are no regulations here in Connecticut about labeling.

I learned from Mses. Lawrence and Kremer, however, that California requires its olive oil manufacturers to meet the same rigorous standards as the IOOC.  We supermarket shoppers should look for the California Olive Oil Council seal on the label.  

The cult of olive oil lovers rivals any group of oenophiles. Swirling, smelling, and swallowing (or not) is not limited to wine-tasting. Olive oil tasters do the same, but for olive oil tasters, that ritual includes another step: “slurping”, where the taster breathes in while his/her mouth is full of oil, sucking air across the palate and into the back of the throat, making a distinctive - and in any restaurant clearly unacceptable – sound.

Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with time. The shelf life is about 18 months to two years (So much for my buying the industrial-sized can to save money.) and when I worried about what to do with oil that has past its prime, Ms. Kremer told me that she uses last year’s olive oil for cooking. She considers the good stuff a condiment.

Olive oil tasting, like tasting wine, has its own vocabulary. Wine has arcane adjectives like leesy, lightstruck, and dumb.  Olive oil can be described as Fusty, Musty, Fruity, Grubby, Briney, and, interestingly, Machine Oil.  Sounds like Snow White’s dwarves, except for Machine Oil.

A good taster can pick up the taste of fresh-cut grass, walnut shells, ripe banana, stone fruit, mint, tomato leaf, green tea – and on and on.

At the tasting at Olivette, we swirled and sniffed and slurped and swallowed, and after discerning grass and artichoke and straw and butter, one attendee blurted, “This just tastes like olive oil!”

Sure enough, Ms. Kremer had sneaked in an ordinary olive oil from a local supermarket, like the kind I have been buying for years: dull, flavorless, bland, boring. I was ashamed.

A shop devoted to olive oil and vinegar should be like a good liquor store, luring the curious and uneducated without intimidating them. Olivette, subtitled the art of olive oil and balsamic, tucked into a row of businesses at 1084 Post Road, is just that, its shelves lined with gleaming stainless steel vats (called fusti) full of olive oil and balsamic vinegars, available on tap for you to taste; then it’s drawn, bottled, and corked right in front of you. No substandard stuff here.

Not like the stuff in my cupboard … and I haven’t been educated in vinegar yet, where I will probably suffer culinary shame again. 

[Photography courtesy of Jane Beiles Photography]