To say I learned a thing or two during the Olive Oil Sensory Evaluation course at UC Davis last week is an enormous understatement. For the past year and a half I have been devouring as much information on olive oil as I can find, but our trip to California olive country and taking the class at the Olive Center, where folks know more about the subject than anyone else, put me so far ahead of where I was before. I know we'll be making this trip a lot more often - at least annually - as there is so much to see and learn, and one week allowed for only a taste of what's out there in this fascinating and exciting industry.
Here, in no specific order, are some of the most interesting and important points I gathered from the course:
1. I now know how to taste and determine whether an oil is defective, usually just by aroma alone, a skill that will go a long way in this business.
2. Flavored olive oils, legally, cannot be called extra virgin, regardless of the grade of the base oil. If something other than olive oil is added to it, its extra virginity status is forever sullied. Also, "infused" is often an incorrect term when applied to olive oils. For instance, our flavored oils are produced by pressing fruit or herbs in with the olives all in one fell swoop rather than adding the flavors later. That is the difference.
3. Furthermore, those popular at-home oil infusions are a bad idea. People think, "Oh hey, I don't need to buy this $12 garlic-infused olive oil 'cause I got 'dat plastic gallon of eevoo from Costco at home and I can just put garlic in it." I can see where people might think this is a brilliant idea...except for the whole botulism thing. That's right. Adding anything with moisture to a bottle of olive oil will cause anaerobic activity that creates the perfect environment for this particular toxin. No, thanks. DIY stuff is cool, usually, just not in this case.
4. The extra virgin grade is virtually meaningless. The current standard is so low that even perfectly wretched, rancid oils, could at least meet the very high minimum requirement of .8% free fatty acid content. In fact, even .5% is pretty bad news. Of the good, defect-free oils that I tasted, .3% was the highest. To clarify the free fatty acid (FFA) bit, this term has nothing to do with acidity in the pH sense but in the molecular sense. The more FFAs, the more unstable the oil, and shorter the shelf life. I'm no chemist, so that's the best way for me to explain it, though I came away with a much clearer understanding of what it means.
5. Italy does not produce enough olive oil to meet the demands for Italians' consumption. This is why they really aren't (with very few exceptions) exporting any of their own oil. If consumers are fine with buying something that says "PRODUCT OF ITALY" and is actually a product of Spain, Greece, Morocco, and Tunisia, then no big deal. I'm just a fan of transparency in marketing.
6. I will never in a million years try oil from Morocco. As it turns out, different cultures have very different quality standards for their food. Moroccans, as a group, actually prefer fusty oil (and rancid butter). They purposefullyproduce fusty olive oils because that's what they've come to know as good oil. Olives are given days, sometimes even weeks, to sit in filthy sacks before being fed through the mill. You can imagine what these olives look like. Nasty, nasty yuck. I will say, though, that they do up their standards a little for export, but only a little.
7. Sometimes when a producer has a surplus of table olives (cured, brined, fermented fruit), they'll press these to get the oil. When consumers describe an oil as "olive-y", this is usually what they mean - possessing the taste of a canned or jarred olive - since that's what most people recognize, not the flavor of a fresh olive.
8. I get asked this every day I work, at least five times: "Do you make this?" True, some folks don't realize that olives and the climate of western Pennsylvania are incompatible, to say the least. But then there are those who think, "Duh. I know they don't grow here. I just figured you imported the olives and pressed them at your house." Yes, at my house. This is always a funny joke to me, though I realize that's never the intent, so I have a private chuckle. I always explain to the overoptimistic questioner that, in order to produce quality oil, the fruit must be pressed within twenty-four hours of being picked. Many mills with stricter standards (and, wouldn't you know, better oils) will press within three hours, some in as few as twenty-five minutes. These mills are concerned with churning out the freshest oils possible. Then there are the mills who will wait four days, at which point the oils are guaranteed to be fusty, not to mention rancid. After six days between the tree and the mill, fungus will take hold, and plenty of mills have no qualms with tossing fuzzy, moldy olives down the hatch. They know that if they bottle it and it gets put on the shelf in the Super Fresh, someone will buy it. It's really a lot like Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle', but with olive oil instead of the meatpacking industry.
I know there are other things I will want to mention later when I remember them. I did not take many notes during the course since we moved pretty quickly, but the information will be available to me soon so I can go back and revisit the Powerpoint slides and jot things down at my leisure.