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How well do you know your olive oil?

“Once someone tries a real extra virgin — an adult or a child, anybody with taste buds — they’ll never go back to the fake kind. It’s distinctive, complex, the freshest thing you’ve ever eaten. It makes you realise how rotten the other stuff is, literally rotten. But there has to be a first time. Somehow we have to get those first drops of real extra virgin oil into their mouths, to break them free from the habituation to bad oil, and from the brainwashing of advertising. There has to be some good oil left in the world for people to taste.”

― Tom Mueller, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

I agree with Tom Mueller, there has to be some good oil left in the world for people to taste and there are. You just have to know how to find it.

Let’s start with laying some foundations. First and foremost olives are stone fruits just like cherries, apricot and peaches.  Therefore extra virgin olive oil is a freshly squeezed fruit juice, which makes it perishable and seasonal.  Just like all fruit juices, the flavor and aroma will start to deteriorate as soon as you start extracting the juices. Try a week old orange juice or a couple of weeks old opened bottle of wine and you’ll understand what I mean. The same principle holds with olive oil too. So the fresher, the better. 

Next is fruitiness, bitterness and lastly pungency, the peppery sensation at the back of your throat that burns when you taste the olive oil by itself.  These are determined by the volatile compounds and phenolic molecules present in the olive oil, but we’ll get into that later on in the series. For now, let’s just say that these three attributes should be the ones you look out for when tasting an olive oil. It should smell fruity and fresh, some even smell like newly mowed lawns or almost like green apples. The taste should be fresh and crisp too, it shouldn’t have a greasy feel to the mouth and should have a bitter and pungent aftertaste.

There are over 1500 different olive cultivars on our planet. Some of these are only used as table olives and some are used to make olive oil and some for both. So asking which olive oil is the best is like searching for the best wine on the planet. It’s an impossible task. However just like wine, you can actually pick the olive oil that would best pair with the food you’re cooking. But first you have to get to know your olive oil a bit more.

Buy only bottles that are labeled as “extra virgin”, the other categories have all undergone a refinement process which usually involves chemicals. Get to know your bottle of olive oil. Know who made it, when they made it, meaning when was the harvest and where. If these information are not available on the bottle, then don’t buy it. By knowing when your olive oil was harvested you can make an educated guess on its freshness. I would generally avoid buying bottles from the previous year’s harvest. Keep in mind that the harvest period is during autumn months for the Northern Hemisphere and not surprisingly during our spring months for the Southern Hemisphere. 

So next time when you walk into a supermarket to refresh your supply of olive oil, be more mindful of your purchase. Don’t automatically reach for your budget friendly supermarket or household brands. Take your time, look around. Inspect the bottles, gather your information and once you’re satisfied with your choice, throw it into your basket. Now you can reach for your regular brand too. Buy that as well and when you get home, compare them. First smell them as soon as you open the bottle and then have a tablespoon from both. You’ll notice the difference, oh you’ll notice…

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