It was a perfect morning to head down to the Richmond riverside and Liquid Gold Cave for a course that would teach me about tasting olive oil and also its health benefits. The sun was shining, glistening off the water of the River Thames that runs just outside the cave (indeed it’s not accessible sometimes at high tide!), bringing a touch of the Mediterranean to London if you were feeling in as fanciful a mood as I was in my anticipation of the day ahead.
I’ve written before about the wonderful products sold in Dr Stavia Blunt’s cave (click here) and already knew something of the benefits of the Cretan oil she sells. And I felt I knew something about choosing olive oil, what to look for and its benefits. But really I knew nothing, for here I was to meet the experts. The day’s course was to be run by Stavia – a doctor and once a consultant neurologist – and Charles Quest-Rison, an internationally recognised olive oil expert. He is the first Englishman to qualify as an olive oil taster in accordance with the European Union standards at the Italian National Organisation for Olive Oil tasters (ONAOO) in Liguria. He runs courses in Italy and England and advises producers in several countries and helps retailers to select their range. Charles is also author of Olive Oil, published by Dorling Kindersley in 2006, a best-selling book that tells you about olive varieties, buying olive oil, tasting notes, world regions and top producers.
The cave is quite small but Stavia and her business partner Alex had laid out tables down the centre with notebooks, pencils, bottles of water and a plate with knife and apple. The apple seemed a little strange at first sight but I was to learn that eating a slice of apple is an excellent way to clear the palate between different oil tastings.
It wasn’t as dark in the cave as you might imagine; the sun shone through and we could see the river outside. What pleasant surroundings for the day’s course. There were 12 of us apart from Stavia, Charles and Alex. Everything had been well planned and organised. We were a wonderful mixed bunch of olive oil enthusiasts, including a professional food writer, someone from an olive oil company based in Greece; a buyer from a food product company; a filmmaker/photographer and someone who makes beauty products from olive oil. It was a great group and by the end we’d all bonded so well we were talking of when our first reunion would be!
I’ve been to a few wine tasting courses but never tasted olive oil in any serious way before. To some extent it is similar: there’s a certain vocabulary to learn and the more you practise – especially sharing with others – the easier it becomes. While with wine you learn to identify smells and tastes like oak and dark fruits, whether the wine has much tannin or acidity, with olive oil you find you are looking for a balance of fruitiness, pepperiness and bitterness. With Charles’s help we started to recognise smells and tastes of artichoke, tomato, grass, green almonds and citrus.
The oils were served in coloured little plastic cups as Charles explained that we shouldn’t be influenced by colour.
The optimum temperature for tasting we were told was 24C and Charles told us professionals will sometimes warm the cup in their hands first but he didn’t think it was necessary for us to do that. First we smelled: what could we smell? We should look for defects first: was there a rancid or mouldy smell, anything unpleasant? What else could we pick up that was good? Then we tasted and tried to identify particular flavours. The bottle of oil was passed round so we could see what we were tasting while we discussed what we thought about it. Charles was very encouraging, telling us to just say what came to us and not worry about whether it was ‘right’. One of the many interesting tips he passed on was never to taste the oil with bread as that changes the flavour. I commented that at food fairs tastes of olive oils are invariably given with pieces of bread, but while it’s nice to eat good bread with a good olive oil, don’t do your tasting with bread but taste the oil on its own. However, the more you understand about the different tastes and qualities of different olive oils the more you see that some go better with certain foods than others. So with each oil we’d discuss what food it would go well with; the more robust, very fruity oils would be better with some foods that could take their flavour while something like fish would need a lighter, gentler oil.
As we got into the tastings, Charles asked us to mark each oil on three essential qualities – fruitiness, pepperiness and bitterness – out of 10. There should be a good balance and an oil should contain all these qualities to some extent with the fruitiness dominating. Bitterness was a surprising ‘quality’ but we learnt it is both necessary and desirable. Charles told us it was the most difficult to identify well and one of the most difficult tests when training to be an olive oil taster.
As the day went on we learnt about different olives and where they’re grown, mostly commonly in countries like Spain, Greece, Italy and France. There are strict EU regulations that control the definition of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) including its origin, the season of picking, that it has been pressed cold from olives and has a low level of free acidity. Unlike wine, where producers and particular estates are given a certificate of classification and quality that lasts indefinitely, olive oil from the same grower and even the same tree has to be re-certified each year and will undergo a series of tests by qualified tasters to check the quality is still up to standard.
I picked up a number of tips during the day and will summarise them here:
* however good the olive oil, it deteriorates with age (unlike good wine), right from the moment it is pressed, so it’s important to look at the label when you buy oil. Don’t buy any oil that was harvested more than 12 months ago. This is not the same as the sell-buy date – though unfortunately, having taken a closer look at bottles of oil in the supermarket today after yesterday’s course, many producers fail to tell you when the oil was made, they only give a use-by date.
* once opened, try to use your bottle of olive oil within 3 weeks, a month at the most.
* buy only Extra Virgin Olive Oil and look for a DOP sign guaranteeing quality. Anything estate-made or estate-bottled is likely to be a better quality. Avoid ‘product of’ or ‘blended’.
* look for the level of acidity. EVOO should be below 0.8% but a good EVOO should be considerably less, like 0.5% or even 0.2%. This is important for EVOO’s health benefits and lasting quality for a low level of acidity means there is less oxidisation and likelihood of decay.
* olive oil should be stored in a coloured bottle – try to buy it in a dark bottle but if you buy oil in a clear bottle, don’t decant it as this will hasten the oxidisation process. Keep the lid on or cork in – don’t use one of those handy drizzlers that are popular because that’s only going to allow more air into your oil and increase the rate of oxidisation. Store the bottle somewhere neither too hot nor too cold and away from light. Charles did a wonderful experiment by putting some oil in a clear bottle in his hot conservatory for the weekend and bringing it for us to test against the same oil which has been properly stored. Even in the few days the colour had noticeably changed and the flavour deteriorated.
* don’t keep olive oil in the fridge.
* an unfiltered oil doesn’t last as long as a filtered one.
* there’s some controversy about cooking with olive oil: some people believe it isn’t good. But we learnt that EVOO has a low acidity and the lower the acidity the more able it is to deal with high heat. It’s actually one of the best oils to cook with, although you wouldn’t deep fry with it!
* avoid ‘refined’ olive oil which has undergone chemical cleansing and tends to be colourless and tasteless.
Charles mixed up the oils so we tasted good and bad. This is essential because many of us will be used to using oils that are – in purist terms – quite bad or ones that have been opened for weeks and have deteriorated in quality. Sometimes he told us we didn’t have to taste the bad ones, just smell. But I did have a little sip of a rancid one wondering if I’d have recognised the rancid smell and taste if I hadn’t known. Fortunately, we ended with some very good ones. Of the many he brought for us to taste, there were a couple which you can buy easily here so I thought I’d mention those:
Tesco Finest Sicilian Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Charles put Sicilian olive oils at the top of his list of favourites (followed by Catalonia and then Tuscany). This Tesco oil he described as good (though not wonderful) with a nice balance of fruit, pepper and bitterness and a fresh, grassy smell. I bought a half litre bottle this morning for £6 in Tesco.
Morgenster Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This one was a bit of a surprise: a South African oil from the Stellenbosch area, famous for its wine. It’s produced by a Tuscan who has moved to South Africa, using a Tuscan variety of olive. It has a smell of artichokes and taste of green almonds and tomato with a very well balanced fruit-pepper-bitter ratio. It is available in Waitrose at £13.99 for a half litre.
We learnt so much from Charles but still had to find out a lot about olive oil’s health benefits from Stavia. First, however, we had lunch. A Cretan meal of salads and dips and cheese with some of their lovely honey drizzled over the top.
I have to tell you that I’d eaten some because I was so busy talking before I remembered to take a photo! But it was delicious and just right. Some of us stretched our legs a little outside in the sun for a bit before returning for the second half.
Dr Stavia Blunt: Health Benefits of Olive Oil
A number of studies have shown the Cretans to be the healthiest people in the world and a large part of this is thought to be due to their consumption of olive oil. Olive trees are the oldest in the world and have been cultivated for 1000s of years. Indeed, fossils of olive trees going back 50,000 years have been found on the Greek island of Santorini. They have a unique and special quality of durability and resistance to disease and it’s believed that some of this may be passed to man when he consumes olives and olive oil. If cut down to ground level, they always grow back. It’s quite hard to kill and olive tree! On a personal note, my son and daughter-in-law thought their little olive tree had died over the winter of 2012/2013 and were about to throw it out. But I took a close look and saw small signs of life and offered to cut back the dead. It looked rather sad when I’d finished but within weeks it was full of new growth and leaves and looked amazingly healthy!
First forms of writing use the olive leaf shape and machines for pressing olives have been found dating back 3,000 years. Homer wrote of the importance of olive oil in everyday diet and Odysseus was bathed in olive oil – liquid gold (which is where Liquid Gold Products takes its name from). Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, recorded 60+ medical uses of olive oil for things like skin conditions, fever and neurological conditions. Some of the phenophynals in olive oil are the same as those found in Ibuprofen.
Olive oil’s health benefits can be traced through history but it was after World War II when the Rockefeller Foundation commissioned a report on the Mediterranean diet that we – in modern times – really came to understand how wonderful it is. American scientist Ancel Keys showed that the people of the Mediterranean – particularly the Cretans – lived longer without disease and had an especially low incidence of heart disease. An American study has shown that 2 tablespoons of EVOO a day can significantly lessen the chance of stroke, heart attack and a number of other diseases; it is also a good anti-inflammatory and corrects cholesterol levels. The US now allows producers to claim EVOO reduces heart disease on their (certified) bottles.
Unlike any other oil you will buy for cooking or salads, EVOO uniquely is made from a pure extraction of a fruit and thus retains all the goodness. Most other oils come from seeds. An olive is made up of about 98% fat, including soluble vitamins and 2% water fat solution (which is removed when the oil is refined). This 2% is very important: from it you get all the features of smell and antioxidants, vitamins, beta-carotene and polyphenols, which are so good for health. An oil rich in polyphenols will resist damage from high heat.
Well, what a day! We’d learnt so much and I know I shall never look at a bottle of olive oil in the same way again. I shall be checking the label and making sure I store it properly. I hope I shall also be better at recognising a good oil over a less good or even bad one. Inevitably, I ended up thinking I should be consuming more, even though I already have quite a lot of EVOO a day as I always have a salad at some stage and drizzle EVOO over vegetables too. It’s really the most perfectly wonderful food. We were all given a bottle of Liquid Gold’s Cretan Rustic Gold, superior quality EVOO to take home.
It has less than 0.3% acidity and so is very very healthy – as well as delicious. It was a fantastic day: a great group of people, wonderfully informative and brilliant teachers in Charles and Stavia. If you’re interested in finding out about more courses or just what you can buy from Liquid Gold Cave check out this link: Liquid Gold Products.