Most of us know about the health benefits of olive oil: good quality extra-virgin olive oil is a source of antioxidants and nutrients such as vitamins E, A and K; it’s rich in monounsaturated (or “good”) fats; and diets which prominently feature olive oil have been found to lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
But while many North Americans have taken a page from the Mediterranean handbook and introduced olive oil into their diets, not all olive oil is created equal. Like wine, different olive oils have very different flavour profiles, depending on factors such as the types of olives used, the terroir of an olive grove and the production methods used.
Being half Italian, I’ve grown up with olive oil as an essential part of my diet. But it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I was first introduced to the idea of tasting olive oil to appreciate the unique qualities of different products. Since then, I’ve been an olive oil aficionado, particularly of Spanish oils, which are arguably among the most flavorful. So when an invitation came to attend a tasting event showcasing new Spanish olive oils, courtesy of Mary Luz Mejia at Sizzling Communications, I jumped at the chance.
The event took place at Pimenton, a Toronto food store focused on products from Spain. Our guide, Delores Smith of The Olivar Corp., led us through a tasting of five different olive oils. Truly an expert in the topic, Delores shared some interesting bits of wisdom about tasting and appreciating olive oil:
- To enjoy the full range of aromas and flavours in an olive oil, it’s important to ensure it is at the appropriate temperature (approximately room temperature). We did this by pouring a small amount into a cup, then holding the cup between our hands for a couple minutes.
- Many good quality olive oils will leave a peppery finish in the back of your throat. This is evidence of high antioxidant levels in the oil.
- Olive oils can range from very light yellow to green in appearance. Colour, however, has no bearing on the taste of a particular oil
- Just as wines can evoke certain taste comparisons – berry, spice or chocolate in red, for example – olive oils have their own common taste profiles, including citrus, herbs, tomato and banana.
Our first sample was a new release, Full Moon. This oil is made of 100% arbequina olives, picked in Spain’s Extremadura region during the full moon. In its first year of production, 2009, the harvest took place at precisely 6:00 a.m. on October 4. This early harvest results in olives that are the ideal balance between ripe and green, and an oil with a complex but delicate flavour. I tasted tomatoes and slightly unripe banana, with a smooth finish and only a hint of pepper.
Oro San Carlos was next, featuring a coupage (or a blend) of arbequina and cornicabra olives. This combination produces an oil that has greater stability and can be used for cooking (the delicate flavour profile of a 100% arbequina oil would be lost in the heating). It was interesting tasting this one right after the Full Moon, as the different flavour profile was evident – less fruit, more herbs. I tasted an essence of fresh cut grass. While still very smooth, the Oro definitely had more of a peppery bite.
Our third sample was Dauro, a coupage of 80% arbequina and 10% hojiblanca from Spain, as well as 10% koroneiki from Greece. We were told that Dauro is a favorite olive oil in Japan, where its subtle spicyness allows it to pair well with wasabi. This one had a taste that was less robust than the Oro, but with a more pronounced flavour of bitter herbs and pepper.
The blend in our next oil, Ame, included Arbequina, as well as Greek Koroneiki olives, Cobrancosa from Portugal and Frantoio from Italy. It was notable for its heavier mouth feel, which almost verged on buttery, as well as an interesting taste profile that began as herbal and grassy, but gave way to a mild sweetness reminiscent of melon.
The final oil we tasted, Rincon, ended up being my favorite. We were told Rincon is the world’s most-awarded olive oil, with 65 recognitions. I tasted more green fruit in this, with more of a bitter flavour and a heavier peppery presence.
We ended the evening by sampling a selection of tapas prepared by Pimenton owner and chef, Lola Csullog-Fernandez. I particularly enjoyed the deep-fried pimenton chickpeas (a shock to me, since I’m really not a chickpea fan), the lamb meatballs served with an alioli prepared with quince paste and the Oro de San Carlos oil we tasted, and the chorizo iberico on the charcuterie platter, the latter of which I liked so much I had to buy to enjoy at home.