Olive Oil Tasting
In Greek mythology, the Gods Athena and Poseidon competed to give mortals the best gift. It was a fierce competition because Athens was the prize. Athena won with the olive tree, which is no surprise to the Paso-area olive oil producers. They are passionate about olive trees and their lovingly crafted olive oils, and are delighted to talk about why they are drawn to this ancient rhythm of olive tree fruiting, harvest, milling and oil.
OK, so maybe you’ve never been olive oil tasting and you imagine that it will be boring and -- well -- greasy. Or maybe you have done some tasting, but you weren’t sure what you were looking for when you took those little sips. After all, you’re not going to take your olive oil home and sip it like a cocktail. So here’s the low down on olive oil tasting: the why and how and where you can have fun meeting those strange and passionate locals who have devoted themselves to producing some of the best olive oil in the world.
If you’ve never tasted anything but bland supermarket olive oil, prepare to be surprised when you taste California’s central coast olive oil. The freshness and quality of olive oil make a huge difference to the flavor. In fact, a UC Davis study showed that most of the imported brands of olive oil found in supermarkets and labeled “extra virgin” don’t meet industry standards for extra virgin. These olive oils are often old and rancid, contain low-grade refined olive oil, or may even contain oil that isn’t from olives. Try a taste of the supermarket olive oil in your cupboard -- just pour a little into a small cup or shot glass, smell it, and taste it straight without the benefit of bread, seasonings or vinegar. Do you get a whiff of something that reminds you of fingernail polish remover? Does it taste greasy? Is it quite tasteless? If yes to any of these, you are missing out on the delicious flavors and health benefits of fresh, authentic extra virgin olive oil. So give olive oil tasting a try when you’re in the Paso area. It will be a very different experience from sipping on Bertolli.
Tasting olive oil is a bit like tasting wine. It’s fun and easy; what’s best is a matter of personal taste, and the more experience and background you gain the more you'll appreciate taste distinctions. When you're tasting, I suggest that you smell the olive oil first -- ideally after warming the tasting cup in one hand while covering the top of the cup with your other hand. Spending a half-minute warning the cup like this will intensify the aromatic components of the oil, making it possible to smell the “fruitiness” of the olives that make up the oil. Fresh, authentic extra virgin olive oil may smell like grass, hay, herbs, nuts, tropical fruit, or even floral --different varieties of olives will give olive oil different smells and flavors. Then take a little sip of the olive oil, slowly coating your mouth with the oil before swallowing. The surprise is the perky flavors you'll experience. Three “good” flavor components are distinguishable in extra virgin olive oil, and olive oil people refer to these as fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency.
- Fruitiness flavors may include hints of green tea, green apples, artichoke, tomato, almonds, banana. Bitterness is another natural flavor component of extra virgin olive oil, with different oils varying a lot in the intensity of their bitterness. Pungency is a pepperiness at the back of the throat that may make you cough. Extra virgin olive oils higher in polyphenols, which are antioxidants and have health benefits, will be more pungent.
Authentic extra virgin olive oils are very diverse in their flavors, and your own personal preference should be your guide when you taste. My favorites tend to be robust --intensely grassy, bitter, and peppery -- but some prefer more delicately flavored olive oils. It’s fun to experiment with different kinds. Try different olive oils with bread, drizzled over steamed veggies and grilled meats, on baked potatoes and pasta, and as salad dressings. Olive oils infused with added flavors such as lemon, orange, and basil can also be fun additions to your cooking.
We Olive in historic downtown Paso Robles specializes in California-produced olive oils, and there you can taste many different labels of extra-virgin olive oil, including many that are produced right in Paso Robles. The olive oils are displayed on a gorgeous bar and lined up from delicate to robust in flavor intensity.
Or venture out to farmland around Paso and Templeton to visit the olive oil makers themselves. You can taste their “liquid gold” amidst their olive orchards.
We invite you to visit us at Kiler Ridge OliveFarm. Other area farms are also regularly open for olive oil tasting, including Alta Cresta, Olea Farm, Olivos de Oro, and Pasolivo. And still, more are open by appointment, including Berardo, Casa Pau Hana, Fandango, and Olio Nuevo. A full listing of olive oil retailers, growers, and producers in the central coast can be found at www.centralcoastolivegrowers.org/Members
So check out the olive oil side of Paso wine country -- it will be fun and not greasy.