Did you know that you taste olive oil like you taste wine? In wine glasses and all…in a tasting room! I was just visiting the island of Mallorca in Spain and this is a prime olive-oil growing region. My friends and I stopped by the beautiful Aubocassa to tour their orchard, learn about making olive oil and taste their beautiful product. Tiffany Blackman gave us an informative tour and I learned more about it than I ever thought I would including How to Taste Olive Oil!
This farm has 8000 trees that produce Arbequina olives biannually. The make olive oil once per year. I had always learned that you press the olives several times and the first press was the best and the one that you want to eat. However, Tiffany taught us that that was more old-school with machinery of the past. Now they do it all in one press (which is actually an extraction) to create a delicate, fine olive oil.
This tour was timely because the olive oil controversy is raging currently. Ever since information came out about how most olive oil on the market is in fact just colored vegetable oil, consumers have been wondering how they can tell if their product is real. Some products tested fail quality tests due to oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures or light, poor quality and high acid levels when the oil is made from bruised or overripe olives, or when the real stuff has been supplemented with cheaper refined olive oil or even other vegetables oils. While finding the real stuff in the US may continue to be a challenge, I have some tips that I learned in Spain and also just some fun info to share with you about how olive oil is made and how it all works.
Being on the farm was very cool! We got to see workers trimming the trees and the farm dog chasing a rabbit at high speed through the rows of trees. They use a shake machine, similar to what I’ve seen on almond tours in California where the machine moves quickly from tree to tree, grabbing the base and shaking violently yet briefly to loosen any ripe olives and drop them to the ground. In fact, this whole experience reminded me of being in Lodi, California – hot and dry. They prune the trees every year to let the light and air into the olive fruit. They aim for three arms on each tree for optimal exposure. Though they have thousands of trees, two men do all this work by hand.
On this olive farm, they pick in November and December when the olives are green and red indicating they’re not totally mature yet. From pick to press, it’s all about speed because time equals quality here. At Aubocassa, they’re pressing about 90 minutes after they pick. They cold press and hold the oil in tanks without light or air and they bottle with nitrogen to stop any fermentation. You can visit their tasting room which is very similar to a wine tasting room. We had wine glasses with about a teaspoon of olive oil in it and we all tasted together, noticing the spicy sensation and flavors of the fruit. It was incredible how different various oils tasted.
I previously thought that extra virgin vs virgin vs olive oil was based on the press cycle but Tiffany taught us that the verbiage is actually indicated by acid levels. Higher acid is worse and lower is better. To be extra virgin, they send to a lab to test the condition where they smell and taste for any faults. If the acid is 0.1-0.8, it can be labeled extra virgin. This is something you can look for in stores but not all bottles have it. Virgin is 0.81-2 and olive oil is often a combination of virgin and refined olive oil. It is not considered fresh pressed and any defects can be altered by chemicals. If you’re after heart healthy benefits, this last one isn’t what you’re after.
Olive oil is famous for its potential to reduce risk for heart disease so including it in the diet is important. But not if its adulterated with cheap vegetable oil…so there are a few things you can do to protect yourself. Check your olive oil labels for best-by dates and see when it was bottled (hopefully within the last year). Be mindful when tasting olive oil. You may cough a bit as your throat tickles from the antioxidants. Subtle flavors you could notice include grass, herbs, or spices. If you can find it in the store, look for acid levels listed on the label. Look for dark bottles to protect the product from light. Don’t keep it by the stove; store your olive oil away from light and heat.
When you have good olive oil, you can make delicious recipes like my Simple Garlic Lemon Zoodles! What do you think? Have you ever done an olive oil tasting before? Let me know in the comments!
Ginger Hultin,MS, RD, CSO
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