Sunday, March 04, 2007

Olive Oil 101.04 - How to taste

When a customer comes into the store and tries to taste olive oil, it is not my job to tell them how they should eat their food. If they want to gulp down a bite of each oil in rapid succession, soaking just a corner of a larger piece of bread, that is perfectly fine. Zingerman's is there to give them whatever experience they most want--we're the Disneyland of artisanal flavors.

However, if a customer comes to a tasting, they want that experience; they want to learn how to most optimally taste or most optimally use a particular food. So, here's how you most optimally taste olive oil:

1. Pour a little olive oil in a brandy snifter or a really thin shotglass.
2. Hold the glass in your hand so that you can heat the oil with one hand.
3. Cover the mouth of the glass with your other hand (this is to capture all the aromas you can)
4. Start swirling the oil (this helps both to speed up the warming process and to release more aroma)
5. Just enjoy the moment and the anticipation as you take about a minute to warm the oil to the temperature of your body.
6. Bring the glass to your nose and inhale, smelling and noting the smells. Associate them to other foods and smells in your life. Enjoy the smells separately and together.
7. Drink the oil, keeping it in your mouth. Hold the oil in your mouth and experience it. Feel it. Note its mouthfeel, its texture, its tastes.
8. Most of taste is paired with your olfactory nerves, so smile widely; touch the tip of your tongue to the hard palate of your mouth so as to cause the oil to pool on both sides of your tongue; inhale sharply so as to bubble air through the oil pools; and swallow (spit first if you prefer)
9. Exhale through your nose after you swallow, so more olfactory nerves are stimulated.

Note all of the aromas and flavors. Use your own words or try to identify the flavors using a tasting wheel. The one I've linked to was developed by Richard Gawel and is called a Recognoze wheel:

Gawel explains his motivation behind undertaking the project. "Finding the right terms to describe complex foods such as olive oil is a difficult task. Known as the 'tip of the nose' phenomenon, it is very common for someone to recognize an aroma or flavor, although they are unable to find the correct term to describe it. Having access to a structured and comprehensive list of descriptors can greatly assist them in finding the right terms to accurately describe the olive oil" explains Gawel.

The use of the 'wheel' format whereby descriptive terms are listed around its perimeter, with similar aromas and tastes being adjacent to each other, was inspired by the success of the now famous Wine Aroma Wheel developed at the University of California, Davis.

The 72 terms fall into the main olive oil sensory classes of herbaceous, fruity, fragrant, spicy, nutty, dried, defects, tactile and taste. Their selection was based on how frequently experienced olive oil tasters are perceived to use them, as well as their occurrence in the olive oil tasting literature. Gawel explains that "some descriptors such as 'buttery', 'nutty' and 'grassy' are commonly used in that they define specific oil styles. Others are varietal. Examples include the 'perfumed' character of the Tuscan variety Frantoio, and the 'tomato leaf' character found in the Spanish varieties Picual and Nevadillo Blanco. Others would seem rather unusual with the 'malt' like character found in some oils made from the Italian variety, Leccino, and the 'cat wee' and 'crushed ant or formic' character found in some very ripe oils."