Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Great Olive Oil Tasting

There's a little background on this one. Back in my darker days, before every episode was basically phoned in, I used to watch Emeril Live. Because he is of Portuguese descent, he likes to extoll the virtues of Portuguese olive oil. I started to wonder, is there really that much difference between extra virgin olive oils from different countries? And is Portuguese really all that and a bag of chips? It was time to find out.

Even before I started to travel a lot, I had begun my quest. It's easy enough in this country to find Italian olive oil. As I found out, Spanish is pretty easy to find too. And because I always pick up a bottle of Greek olive oil at the Salt Lake Greek Festival, that was already taken care of. But as it turns out, Portuguese was pretty difficult to find. With my first class on the road, I started looking for Portuguese olive oil. I found a few other nationalities, but nothing from Portugal.

Eventually, I went to Tony Caputo's in Salt Lake and spent much more money than I would have liked on a bottle of what looked to be very nice Portuguese olive oil. I was finally ready to have a tasting. This evening, our friends Charles and Kristen came over to taste oils with Nat and me. They told me they were happy that they had officially moved up to "upper middle class" by going to an olive oil tasting. Even with all of my excitement, there was a moment just before the tasting where I suddenly got worried that it would all taste the same, and my efforts would be for naught. As it turns out, I had nothing to fear. The oils were as different as the countries from which they hailed.

We did not do a blind tasting. I don't think we really had a whole lot of preconceptions, so I think that was okay. The oils are listed in the order in which we tasted them. Just in case the taste of any one oil was affected by the one before it, we did a second run through in reverse, with a sip of water in the middle of it all. Because we are aware that brand names can be as different within a country as between the countries themselves, I have listed the brands below the countries. Tasting was conducted by dipping cubes of standard (and therefore reasonably flavorless) grocery store French bread in little bowls of oil. I took a few short notes on the first pass, and then the second. I should also note that each bottle was labelled as extra virgin, first cold press.

Tangy. Thick and flavorful. Second time, very fruity initial taste, aftertaste was heavy and oily. Almost gritty. Greasy. Much too thick, almost chewy.

Lighter flavor, except Kristen. Sharper. Second time, tangy, spicy, citrusy. A little smoky.

===Greek Flag===
Label specifies Kalamata olives. Richer. More refreshing. Lighter, but better flavor. Actually tastes like olives. Whispier. Not thick, but intense. Second time, very rich. Tastes like olives. Nat doesn't like olives and she still likes it. Nat's favorite.

Milder. Kristen thinks it tastes like car oil. Burnt. Like the Greek, but not nearly as good. Second time, started out bland, but still awful. Last place.

Sweet. Almost floral. Had to have been planted with flowers. Second time, still very sweet. Not acidic at all. Kristen's first place.

===Villa Flor===
Slightly lighter color. Very light flavor. Almost citrusy. Almost like it was mixed with a lemon or orange. Second time, less citrusy. Nat thinks it's still pungent, Kristen thinks it's very bland.

===Mustapha's Moroccan===
Tastes like fennel or licorice. Second time, licorice is still very immediate. Joseph's first place. Charles' first place.

===Napa Valley Naturals, Private Reserve===
Bitter and dirty, especially the aftertaste. Tastes like Californian olives. Disgusting. "Tastes like hippies." Second time: starts okay, still ends up tasting very bitter and dirty. Nat refused a second tasting. Second to last place.

===Red Island Australia===
Very spicy. Just a little sweeter. Definitely has bite. Second time, started a little sweeter, but ended spicy. A little fruity, somewhat floral. Charles tried to refuse a second tasting.

It would seem that Emeril isn't all that far off. While his wasn't everyone's favorite (despite the fact that it was the most expensive), it did seem to win Kristen over. I feel like hoarding the Moroccan stuff, I loved it so much. I suspect that if Kristen didn't dislike licorice so much, she might have named that one too. The Greek stuff was pretty awesome. I would probably name it my personal second favorite.

I also found it interesting that nobody chose the Italian as their favorite. In fact, I would say it was pretty average, despite the fact that so many Americans consider Italy to be the only country that can make olive oil. It was also interesting that the Turkish was unanimously chosen as the worst (it really did taste like a garage) and that the Californian (which came in a wine bottle, being from Napa Valley and all) was a pretty close second. I had to take a drink of water after these, because they made my tongue feel numb. In fact, the dirty finish of the Californian oil seemed (to me, at least) to intensify any harshness that the Australian oil had.

It wasn't the most scientific tasting, but I think we all learned a lot from it. I may have to have a different set of friends over in the future to do another tasting. Maybe a blind one. I can't think of any other way to get my wife to subject herself to the Turkish and Californian ones again.


  1. Thank you for that comment Matt.
    Before the tasting started I thought to myself "It's kind of unfair to call out a country based on one brand that comes it exports". I shrugged it off because its not exactly easy to find 4-5 brands of olive oil from each country.

    For the out of state/county readers, do you have a list of brands by country that you would recommend? Or can you point us to a guide for the would-be olive oil connoisseur?

  2. I find this all very interesting but you seem to be missing the tremendous products from the USA. My favorite local producer is the Temecula Olive Oil Company. They are the growers of varietal olive oils and are the real deal. Not the bulk processed generic stuff you guys are tasting. Who knows if it is even olive oil. I suggest you step out and contact people who have high standards for their products. the Temecula oils are the best there is and rival TRUE European small production oils.


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