I’m lucky enough to live just up the road from ONAOO (the Italian initials for The National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters), the oldest and most illustrious olive oil tasting school in the world, whose members developed the taste test protocol that forms the core of IOC, EU, USDA and other olive oil grading methods. For centuries, Imperia was a key port in the olive oil trade (Roman wrecks carrying amphorae of oil have been found on the sea floor nearby), where merchants tasted oils from all over the Mediterranean to suss out how much they’d bid for them. These early oil specialists gradually developed a method for identifying, and quantifying, an oil's taste and aroma defects (rancidity, mold, etc), and the positive attributes that properly-made oils should have (fruitiness, bitterness, pungency). ONAOO was founded 30 years ago – the 30th anniversary is being celebrated in Milan on 26 January – but its historic roots run far deeper.
The experts at ONAOO have been advising me for years on olive oil quality, both good and bad, but I’ve never attended one of their famous courses. Finally, at the end of last year, I took their 5-day International Technical Course for Aspiring Olive Oil Tasters, which was every bit as good as I’d expected, though sometimes in surprising ways.
Naturally, I knew the instruction would be first class. We had Lanfranco Conte, leading olive oil chemist of the International Olive Council, the EU and the Italian government, tell us about quality standards. Distinguished agronomist Riccardo Gucci, professor of the University of Pisa, taught a fascinating session on olive tree agronomy (did you know that, at any given time, a tree can have olives at radically different stages of ripeness, ripest at the crown, next-ripest on the south-facing branches, greenest to the north?). Franco Macchiavello of the Italian Ministry of Agriculture’s “fraud repression” unit taught us about labeling and . . . fraud. Several other instructors added their own perspectives on different parts of the oil-making, tasting and eating process.
We also toured nearby groves and mills, and had a memorable dinner with a local chef, who paired each dish with a distinct varietal oil that exalted the food's (and the oil's) unique flavors and textures. We made pesto together, the famed Ligurian pasta sauce, and learned that a mortar and pestle must be used to properly amalgamate the flavors of basil, oil, parmesan and pine nuts. (The mortar and pestle below are a century old.)
The stars of the course, naturally, were the oils themselves. Several tasting sessions were conducted by Marcello Scoccia, leader of the ONAOO taste panel, who has been doing sensory analysis of olive oils for 27 years, and also works as a buyer for major olive oil companies. Together we tasted some remarkable oils from all over the world, including Uruguay, S. Africa, New Zealand, and every corner of the Mediterranean, reveling in oils so different it was hard to believe they came from the same fruit. One of my favorites was the ortice from Benevento, in the Campania region near Naples, whose tomato leaf overtones and full rich greenery, and perfect balance of bitter and spice, still makes my mouth water when I think of it.
We also spent a lot of time studying defective oils, and here’s where the surprises started, at least for me. Our instructors gave us, one at a time, dozens of samples of oils whose aroma and flavor were flawed, usually slightly, sometimes grossly. Our challenge was to recognize these flaws. The most common were rancid, fusty, mold, cucumber, and another of the 16 official taste flaws recognized by the oil standards of the IOC, the EU, the USDA and others (for details on these defects, see here, pp. 55-56). Mauro Amelio, director of the ONAOO, guided our tastings, encouraging us to home in on the precise sensations that each oil set off in our nose, on our palate, in our brain. After assessing each oil we filled out a tasting sheet that described and quantified the intensity of each defect. Then each of us discussed his or her results with the class. I was impressed how rapidly our group, which counted some experienced tasters but also many neophytes, began to identify defects correctly and agree on their intensity. This underscored for us how accurate official taste panels can be, whose members train for years to recognize and quantify defects, and hold regular practice sessions. The most memorable (or creepy) flaw? "Grubby." That is, oil made from olives that were infested by the olive fly, a parasite whose larvae grow inside the olives and give their oil an oddly sweetish flavor of . . . worm meat.
Dr. Amelio, who is a chemist by profession, reviewed the chemical processes that produce each official defect. In doing so, he brought home an essential point: sensory defects aren’t just food snobbery, but key indicators of an oil's real value, in flavor and health. Off odors and tastes are unpleasant in their own right, but also likely signal that the defective oil in question has inferior health properties to fresh, properly-made oils. So taste flaws are key indicators of health and culinary pleasure alike: the two main reasons why most people buy olive oil.
Perhaps my biggest surprise came from my classmates. It was inspiring to meet people with such diverse backgrounds, perspectives and plans in the olive oil world, and know they’d traveled – some from afar – to spend a week honing their knowledge and appreciation of this magnificent food. Among my fellow olive oil students were:
- A Norwegian couple who are opening an olive oil business back home, a Macedonian who’d grown up among olive trees and wanted to strengthen his grasp of oil, and a Frenchman who with his Danish wife runs a wine and olive oil school near Siena offering a wealth of courses, including an olive oil crash course.
- 3 Italians: one producing olive oil in his native Tuscany and importing it to Sweden, where he lives; another planning an online shop to sell premium Greek oils; and a third making oil right there in Imperia.
- Philipp Notter, a Swiss who makes oil in his own mill/laboratory on the Italian Riviera, owns PrOlive & Cie. (research and consulting in mill technology), and writes, eloquently and cogently, about olive oil and oil-pairing, as well as about spices and much else.
- Dutchman Gregor Christiaans who imports first-rate Mediterranean oils into Holland, whose keenness and humor were leaven and spice for our group.
- A Japanese scientist at a research institute on Shodoshima Island, whom I’d actually met during my visit to Japan last May (you can imagine our looks of amazement when we recognized each other, 10,000 kilometers away in Imperia).
- Tennessee-based Susan Ojanen, founder of local bakery cafes who learned of ONAOO from reading Extra Virginity, and attended because of a long-time passion for oil and a desire to share it by educating others – she’s now considering importing olive oil and dreams of growing olives in Tennessee.
- Paulo Freitas, Brazilian food technologist and MBA turned olive oil blogger, consultant and educator, who wants to celebrate the rich history and meaning of oil, and help Brazilians to identify the really good stuff.
- California-based Kathryn Tomajan, founder of the innovative Eat Retreat events and a graduate of the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in nearby Piedmont, who gave a superb presentation entitled “Palates & Perceptions: A Case for Olive Oil Education.” (Here she is making olive oil, one cup at a time, with a KitchenAid grinder!)
- Manhattan-based “oleologist” Nicholas Coleman (quick bio here), who transmits his remarkable olive oil expertise and passion to thousands of people each year at Eataly on Fifth Avenue, where he curates the olive oil section, holds educationals, and is writing a book on olive oil.
All in all, it was great company in which to explore the endless richness of oil, and we’ve stayed in touch since our week in Imperia. It's no exaggeration to say that a significant slice of what I learned in the course came from my fellow students. For a sense of the course and its atmosphere, see this film by my aforementioned fellow student Gregor Christiaans, and – a lot less fun, but still informative – this interview with me after the course.
Whether you're an olive oil novice or an experienced taster, already in the oil business or content to eat and experiment in the kitchen, I strongly recommend taking an olive oil tasting course with another reputable organization. The ONAOO is a superb choice, not only for the school itself but the atmosphere in Imperia. They also offer tasting courses on Skype – see the excellent review here.
Other good places to further your oily education include the following:
- In the USA, another good choice is the UC Davis Olive Center, where the mythical Paul Vossen, owner of one of the most perceptive palates (and largest noses) I’ve ever encountered, holds occasional courses, and where a range of chemical and sensory courses is being planned. Alexandra Devarenne is likewise a superb taster and teacher - try to catch any event where she’s talking about oils.
- In the UK, Judy Ridgeway is a world-class olive oil taster and author of over 60 books, who holds superb tasting courses. Michael North has also connected many Britons with first-rate olive oil.
- In Japan, the Olive Oil Sommelier Association of Japan, led by its Chairman Mr. Toshiya Tada, offers excellent olive oil educations for all levels of experience.
- Richard Gawel, expert olive oil chemist and taster, is one of the best teachers you will ever encounter – insightful, cogent, killingly funny. He runs courses in oil tasting and practical chemistry for the Australian Olive Association between September and November each year, usually in Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne (and elsewhere if there’s sufficient demand). Meantime read his superb blog, Slick Extra Virgin, and buy his brilliant Olive Oil Tasting Wheel, which musters the language of olive oil sensory characteristics, lovely to loathesome, in one convenient place.
- [This is far from a complete list – more resources coming soon.]
Wherever you are, be sure to check the course leader's credentials before you sign up; more than one pseudo-expert has hung up a shingle after minimal training.