What have we here? An article that promises to reveal “The Best Extra Virgin Olive Oil.” Yay! Some help in the confusion of the supermarket olive oil aisle! Except for one thing: the observations in this article are often completely wrong...
I know what I like
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: that age-old saying, “I may not know anything about [fill in the blank], but I know what I like.” On one level, you cannot argue with this. You like Merlot? Great. You prefer Pinot Noir? Fine. You like Budweiser? No problem. There truly is no accounting for taste.
But what about a wine that is has cork taint? Depending on how strong the defect, it is possible that a novice might not immediately recognize that as a sign of something gone wrong. And it’s even possible that if someone has been drinking corked wine for years that it might be part of what they think of as the flavor of wine.
If you ask anyone who knows about wine, they will tell you that cork taint is a defect, and that it is not acceptable in any wine. It is here that the “I know what I like” argument falls apart. If our hypothetical “regular Jill” is given good wines to taste, and learns to recognize that distinctive musty flavor of a corked wine, she will no longer accept a defective wine any more than she would accept spoiled meat.
So now to the taste test that promises to lead us to the “The Best Extra Virgin Olive Oil.” A bit ambitious, the title, but not a bad concept to do some taste testing of supermarket olive oils. Our friend and olive oil gadfly the Australian expert Richard Gawel has been working his way through the shelves of his Australian supermarket doing just that. There’s one big difference, though: Richard is a trained and skilled taster of olive oil. The KitchenDaily taste test seems to have been done by people with virtually no knowledge of the stuff.
Where did they go wrong? Let me count the ways….
Let’s rummage around and pull out a few of the more outrageous bits, shall we?
“…you may tend to grab the same bottle over and over on rushed trips to the grocery store. And since very few olive oils taste offensive, that probably suits you just fine.” Oh dear… it really shouldn’t. You should be outraged that you are paying good money for an often mislabeled and spoiled product. A large percentage of the supermarket olive oil I taste is rancid, and often it also tastes of fermented olives. In the post on defects, you can learn a bit about the causes and flavors of rancidity and fermentation.
“Interesting cured meat flavor.” Yikes! It’s olive oil, it’s not salami! And this was the #1 rated oil! Olive oil is supposed to taste of fresh olives, green or ripe, and all the wonderful nuances that they bring to party. That “cured meat flavor” is usually an indicator of muddy sediment (caused by fermenting sediment in the bottom of the tank) and/or rancidity. Another possible cause of “cured meat” notes is a burnt, overheated or cooked flavor in the oil caused by excessive heat in processing. In any case, it’s hardly a positive flavor.
“Earthy.” It seems like this taster meant “earthy” in a positive way, but that’s a very bad choice of words. “Musty, humid, earthy” are the terms used to describe the classic defect caused by moldy olives. Deborah Rogers, olive oil producer and expert taster, describes it as what you would imagine from “licking the basement floor.” Yum.
“Nice and briny…” Briny. Briny is nice if you are an oyster, perhaps, but not if you are an olive oil. It, too, is on the list of official defects from the International Olive Council. Olives should be milled when they are fresh—ideally within 12 hours of harvest. Holding them in brine for an extended period will preserve them, but you cannot produce a good oil from brined fruit.
“There’s a bitter aftertaste and it burned a little going down the back of my throat.” “Bitter, left me coughing.” “Bitter!” “Grassy and way too spicy, like white pepper.” And then there are these scathing comments about the lowest ranking oils… Bitter! Grassy! Left me coughing! Grassy? That’s one of the flavors that can be found in green olive fruit. As any lover of real, fresh, extra virgin olive oil knows, bitterness and pepperiness are positive characteristics of olive oil. They occur in varying intensities depending on the style of the oil—they don’t have to be super intense—but they are a positive part of the flavor of olive oil.
Just like the hypothetical wine drinker who just needs to be taste some good wine and be taught about cork taint, so the olive oil consumer just needs to taste some good olive oil, and also taste some bad oil and have someone point out when something is wrong. Taste tests from supposed experts who laud the flavors of cured meat and briny olives are no help at all.
This issue of the taste preferences of trained tasters versus consumers is one that I wrote about in an article four years ago in response to a taste test article in Cook’s Illustrated magazine.