Alivu Phase 2: how to taste an oil

Back in November, I wrote about our nonexistent 2016 harvest and the new angle that Alivu was planning to take in 2017; running tasting sessions to teach people how to decipher between their oils. In 2015 Paolo and I qualified as olive oil tasters, part one of a two-part course which olive oil tasters must complete in order to join government-authorised olive oil tasting panels, charged with analysing the organoleptic properties of olive oil; the aspects that an individual experiences via our senses.


An accredited ‘Panel’ for tasting olive oil in Italy

The importance of these properties has been recognised for thousands of years. And they can be tasted. Given our most delicious oil is not available until the end of 2017, Alivu’s plan is to help you taste oils and recommend some to buy. Over the next year, Alivu will be tasting mainstream products available in the Malmesbury area, so at least we will all know what we are buying out there in slippery world of EVOO.

So, in December, Alivu ran it’s first tasting session, with the Malmesbury Women’s Business network, tasting three different Extra Virgin Olive Oils, at least, that is what we supposed they were. I will be writing about these oils next week, but before I go any further, it is worth explaining why tasting oils is so important, with fraud rife and oil at such varying prices.

The problem?

Only 3% of olive oil milled in the world makes the grade as Extra Virgin Olive Oil or EVOO; it’s more costly to produce a genuine EVOO oil both in terms of harvest and it terms of milling and storing. Olive oil is a juice extracted directly from the fruit. If you pick at the right time, it tastes pleasant and has all the beneficial properties that olive oil is famous for, and keeps them for longer. So what? The problem is that it is more labour intensive to harvest, and the olives that make EVOO have a lower yield of oil. In theory, the higher price of EVOO recognises this extra effort, but in practice, many companies are after a quick buck and fake it.

What makes an oil EVOO as opposed to just Olive Oil?

To make EVOO you need to pick your olives as soon as they start to ripen; these green olives are harder to pick when compared to later in the season when the mature fruit is less attached to the stem, and are also less productive when you mill them; the amount of oil you get from a greener olive is less than the oil you get from a ripe, black olive. This is because the black olives are already fermenting, and produce a greater quantity of runny oil. This is why a mill that heats the olive paste can extract more oil.


A traditional oil press in Western Turkey (Photo: Aydin Cetinbostagoglu)

EVOO must be produced only using mechanical (i.e. not chemical) methods – a press or mill – and at low temperatures (not exceeding 27’C). Heating the oil breaks it down whereupon you lose some of its qualities. This is why you read ‘cold press’ and ‘cold extraction’ on your bottle (incidentally the former should only be used if an actual ‘press’ has been used, most prize-winning oils are extracted in a mill, where quality can be more closely controlled).

To sell your product as EVOO, the oil must go to a registered lab and pass a chemical analyses which measures its acidity amongst other things (low acidity – less than 0.8 – is required for the EVOO grade).

If you don’t make the grade with the acidity test, then the oil gets sold on to a bottling company or refinery, where it is heated to 2000’C, stripped of its defects with solvents and then resold as ‘olive oil either as ‘olive oil’ (which must have at least 1% EVOO content) or ‘lamp’ oil, which is not even fit for human consumption. It is this which is ‘Olive Oil’. Yuk.

Given all these extra costs, you can see how it is so lucrative to sell your lower grade oil as EVOO. How? By faking it. Acidity can be fixed in a lab, a practice which is allegedly common in the big bottling plants. It is made to taste and look better using chlorophyl (green) and carotene (taste). So how can you tell?

The solution?

The fact is that if you are used to a genuine EVOO, you won’t be easily fooled by these fakes. However, if you are used to cooking with oils, or mixing them with vinegar and herbs for your dressing rather than tasting them, you may be tricked.

One solution is making an organoleptic analysis mandatory. Only authorised panels can conduct these analysis. Even if your oil’s acidity is low enough to pass the chemical analysis, even it was extracted mechanically and at the requisite low temperatures, it still doesn’t mean that it will pass the taste test.

If the tasters detect a fault – rancid, vinegar, metallic, mouldy, heated, muddy – using a highly rigorous tasting system, it will not be awarded the coveted EVOO standard, and can only be sold as olive oil. At present, the organoleptic analysis is optional, only necessary if you want to use descriptions such as ‘fruity’, ‘bitter’, ‘spicy’, ‘green’ (amongst others) on your label. If you look at the back of your bottle, it probably doesn’t use any of these optional descriptions.

So why is it not mandatory? Many, especially interest groups trying to raise oil quality and small producers, wish it were, but the idea is lobbied against by the big bottling companies, who, as I mentioned above have their own labs, and often their own qualified tasters. They argue it is subjective, but their real motives are financial. If they weren’t worried about the quality of their oil they wouldn’t be threatened.

So look at your oil’s description, a self-respecting producer will have a description such as fruity or spicy. Even then, this is not a fool-proof guarantee, as at present the EU requires best-before dates that are very long (18 months only after you have bottled the oil, which may have been harvested – and analysed – years before). Oil does go off, eventually, but an air tight dark bottle will keep it in a good state for a while. No self-respecting Sicilian will use oil older than 1-2 years. Real aficionados prefer to use theirs within 6 months of picking, a bottle is open for days, not months.

What about us Northerners buying in good faith? The situation may, at this point, sound pretty hopeless.

How will I ever know if I have the real thing? Here are some tips….

A lot of oils are for sale, and if you can afford the prize winners then good for you (even this is not a sure thing) but if not look out for:

  • Dark bottle or tin;
  • Year of harvest (buy preferable last years oil);
  • DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetto) or IGP (Indicazione Geografico Protetto) both of which are designations of origins requiring additional checks and controls directly related to the quality and traceability of the product;
  • Single Estate or at least a real producer (as opposed to a bottling company that buys its oil in the tankard or lorry load) and then blends it in a factory;
  • Organoleptic descriptions;
  • learn to taste your oil, straight, like the tasters do and find the oil that is right for you.

If you want to read about the oils that Alivu is buying and trying then watch this space and follow our blog. I will be buying EVOOs available locally and writing about them right here. If you have one you want us to try then write us an email. If you want me to teach you or organise a tasting event, then get in touch!

Next time the blog will look at two EVOOs: Napolina’s EVOO and Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ DOP Val di Mazara EVOO.


From Sicily to Westonbirt — from Parks and Gardens UK

Leaving our olive groves behind last week was hard, we’re happiest pruning and harvesting our trees. But working in Westonbirt school’s beautiful gardens helps. Today we’ve been digging up ivy and brambles. Everyday grind in a glorious place. It’s exciting to be part of an entirely different landscapes long history. Especially exciting to be involved now, with Heritage Lottery Funds on their way, and the gardens due to be restored, involving community partners and opening up to a wider public, with the aim of being more inclusive.

A piece from an excellent blog on garden history:

Everyone’s heard of Westonbirt Arboretum, one of the most extensive and beautiful collections of trees in the country. But how about the other gardens at Westonbirt? Perhaps not. Yet like the arboretum they were created by the same visionary, Robert Stayner Holford, are just across the road and are open to the public, although they now form […]

via Westonbirt & the Holfords — Parks and Gardens UK