Monday, January 16, 2012

How to Host an Olive Oil Tasting...

Yep. You read it right. This isn't about wine, or cheese, or even chocolate - this is about olive oil. Perhaps you've always loved the idea of a tasting party, but find yourself intimidated by wine or cheese? Or maybe you've been there, done that and are looking for a new edible adventure? We'll, get yourself a loaf of fresh bread and a few bottles of good olive and have yourself a party!

Olive oil has played an important role in food production for thousands of years, but though it may be an ancient ingredient, it's no longer a specialty one: you can find it in almost any kitchen, and anyone who's watched the Food Network a few times can tell you the difference between 'pure' oil and 'extra virgin' (if you're not sure, you can brush up here). Still, it might surprise you to learn that olive oil isn't just for cooking - it even has its own tasting culture! Oils from different sources have different flavors, which are compared and appreciated much like cheese or wine (for a detailed look at the tasting process, go here - ours won't be quite so rigorous!)

Oils are often described as 'fruity' or 'peppery,' some are sweet, white others are spicy.  Extra virgin oil should have a strong flavor, while blended or refined oils may be bland or even almost flavorless. It's a myth that the depth of color corresponds to a depth of flavor. That being said, oils can be almost any shade from pale straw yellow to bottle (or olive!) green, and they will lose flavor the longer they're kept, even if the color doesn't change. For dipping, you should buy the freshest oils you can find - and stick to cold pressed extra virgin.

So what do you need to host a tasting party? Well your spread can be as simple or elaborate as you like, but here are the basics:

The oil pictured comes from Croatia
Oils - Obviously. Since the oil is the main event, be sure to chose a few different varieties (you can also ask each guest to BYOB if you'd like). Don't be afraid to spend a little - a good oil will be worth every penny . Of course, that doesn't mean you have to go straight for the spendy, gourmet varieties. I'd recommend visiting a oil vendor (check your local farmer's market) or a specialty store if possible, simply because they'll be able to give you an idea of what you're buying, but I've had good tasting experiences from regular grocery store oil such as Colavita or Filippo Berio (note: I like fruity, full-bodied oils). The best part about hosting a tasting? You'll be able to figure out exactly what you like in an olive oil!

Bread - This is essential for dipping. While Matt sometimes makes ours fresh, the bread in the photos is the $3 Como loaf from Wal-Mart - and it's great for this purpose. Crusty and fresh, with an open crumb, this bread is perfect for sopping up oil. You can also try using focaccia, but be sure to pick a bread without any add-ins so that the flavor of the oil can shine through.

Sliced Apples - Yes, apples. These are to clear the palate between tastes, so small chunks or thin slices of any variety are fine.

Dipping Bowls - No need for a fancy dipping set - you can use any small, shallow dish.  Make sure your dish is large enough to hold 1-2 tablespoons of oil and a few pinches of salt or parmesan, but small enough that each guest can have their own individual portion. This prevents the awkwardness of double dipping - your guests can just refill with the various oils as needed. It's best to choose something clear or white so that you can fully appreciate the color of the different oils.

Which brings me to Spices and Cheese - While these aren't strictly necessary, it's nice to offer a few add-ins for your guests to enjoy. I like to add a pinch of salt and some grated parmesan cheese, but you should also offer freshly ground pepper, crushed red pepper, and perhaps a selection of other hard shaved cheeses and Italian herbs (like dried basil, thyme, or oregano). The sky's the limit when it comes to add-ins, and this is where you can really customize your experience.

Now that we have the basics, how do you get the tasting started? Well, you'll want to encourage your guests to try each oil plain, before reaching for the add-ins (in fact, professional oil tasters actually drink the oil, sans bread  - a bit too hard core for me!). You're looking to compare the color, flavor and aroma of each oil. Cover the dish and swirl to release the aroma. Then dip the bread to coat, and enjoy. Does the flavor change as it leaves the mouth? Is there an aftertaste? The flavors should be clean and clear - if the oil tastes musty, its probably stale. Be sure to cleanse your palate with the apple slices between varieties, and repeat the process for each oil. For a cheat sheet of tasting terms, go here.

And that, my friends, is all it takes to host an olive oil tasting. It's a fun, simple party idea, but also nice for a date night, or maybe just a preface to an at-home pasta dinner!                  

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  1. I didn't know that part about the apples, I'll have to try that. And I never thought about crushed red pepper, I bet William would like that.

  2. Very intersting. thanks for the tips!

  3. Hi, can I use one of these photos in a little video I'm making about where olive oil comes from? I just would like an olive oil food shot for background while someone is talking.
    Please let me know, and if you have any questions:
    Cool post, too. I didn't know olive oil tastings were a thing!