IF a picture is worth 1,000 words, what is a taste worth? Chinese people are now familiar with wine tasting, which is a rewarding experience. How about olive oil tasting? It is definitely a way to prove that not all the oils are alike.
My first-ever olive oil tasting last month in Melbourne, Australia, proves that people must go beyond reading about oil and be willing to taste it - the best way to educate the palate.
The tasting took place at the lab of Boundary Bend Limited, Australia's largest olive farmer and producer of extra-virgin oil. On each table, there is tap water, several small cups and a green apple.
As with wine grapes, different olive varieties produce oils with varying flavors and aromas. Extra-virgin is highest quality and most expensive. It is rich in natural antioxidants such as vitamin E, carotenoids and polyphenols, all helpful in preventing heart disease, maintaining health and slowing the aging process.
Fruitiness, bitterness and pungency are three positive attributes in olive oils, said Claudia Guillame, who is in charge of both chemical and sensory analysis at Boundary Bend. The company owns Australia's two top-selling domestic olive oil brands, Cobram Estate and Red Island. It cultivates 2.5 million olive trees.
Guillame poured two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil into a cup. A taster should first observe the color. This one was light green. I was told the proper way is to hold the cup in one palm and cover the cup with another, then swirl to warm it. After a minute or two, I stuck my nose into the cup, and took a deep sniff. It had a distinctive aroma of fresh-cut grass, and I also detected green tomato aromas. Actually, that is the first characteristic for judging the quality of olive oil - fruitiness.
"The smell of the extra-virgin olive oil is quite pleasant," said Guillame. "You could imagine what it's like - apples or artichokes? Herbs or green tomatoes?"
Then I sipped a little oil, just a little, as I was afraid of it being too greasy. However, that's not the right way, Guillame pointed out.
She said that if I didn't get a decent amount to coat the tongue, I wouldn't appreciate all the qualities because I was only tasting it on the top of my tongue. So I took a deep breath and swallowed half of it - about a tablespoon. I sensed some bitterness on the sides of my tongue, and pungency in the back of my throat.
"Bitter? Pungent?" Guillame smiled seeing me wrinkle my brow. "That's right! Bitter is a prominent taste in fresh olives. Oil made from riper fruit will have little to no bitterness, oil made from greener fruit can be distinctly bitter.
"Pungency is a peppery sensation, detected in the throat. It is a positive characteristic of olive oil. That's the taste of fine extra virgin olive oil!"
Before the next taste, I had a bite of green apple to clear my palate and rinsed my mouth with water.
In the following tasting, I felt more confident. Just hold it, swirl it, warm it, smell it and finally swallow it!
Some extra-virgin olive oils display intense apple aromas with ripe tropical flavors and distinctive palate sweetness; some feature intense cough-producing pungency.
According to Guillame, each tasting action focuses the attention on a specific positive attribute in the oil. First the taster evaluates the olive fruit aroma by inhaling from the glass.
When the oil is in the mouth, the taster further evaluates the aroma retro-nasally and determine amount of bitterness on the tongue.
Lastly, the taster determines the intensity of the oil's pungency in the throats as it is swallowed.
Judging from fruitiness, bitterness and pungency, a taster identifies oils as mild, medium and robust.
Flavors in olive oil are determined by a wide range of factors, including the type of oil, ripeness at harvest, soil chemistry, growing conditions, crop maintenance, handling of fruit from tree to mill, and the milling process, Guillame added.
After four or five tastings, palate fatigue set in and I couldn't take any more. I must say, three can be a good start for the first-time taster, quite illuminating. For common diners like me, tasting extra-virgin olive oil in combination with food is a much more pleasant experience.
To make the pairing easier, Ryan Norton, the orchard manager of Boundary Bend, draws an analogy between wine and olive oil. The light flavor of extra virgin olive oil is like Merlot in red wine, the medium flavor is like Cabernet, and the robust flavor is like Shiraz.
Light-flavored oil is ideal for cooking fish or eggs, shallow frying and making mayonnaise. Medium flavor with moderate bitterness, pungency and a creamy aftertaste, works well with vegetables, salads, pasta and fish. Robust oils are ideal for cooking red meat.
René Oskam, new executive chef of JW Marriott Hotel Shanghai, is a keen advocate of olive oil and uses a lot of it in cooking.
"Almost all Western cuisines call for olive oil in hot and cold dishes, since it is perfect in a healthy diet," says Oskam. "There are huge differences, however, between different extra virgin oils. It's a bit like wine, it depends on where it comes from, the quality of the olives, and the soil in which they grow."
Two olive oil dishes recommended by René Oskam, new executive chef of JW Marriott Hotel Shanghai