I attended an olive oil course this week in Brighton with the UK olive oil legend that is Judy Ridgway. Judy is one of the few olive oil experts in the world outside of the main olive oil-producing regions and has been honing her skills over the last 30 years. Judy’s enthusiasm for this incredible product is infectious and has wet my appetite for learning even more about this wonderful fruit.
There are over 500 olive varieties globally with the top producing countries, Spain, Tunisia, Italy and Greece, producing the vast quantity of the volume consumed. But there are more and more countries starting to plant groves around the world, such as Australia, South Africa (she had met Anthony Hamilton-Russel!), Argentina, India, China, Croatia, and we tasted one from Israel on this course.
We tasted through 13 extra virgin olive oils, that’s 13 tablespoons of oil in total in one day…and there was a wide range of olive varieties, quality levels and origins. There are 4 main attributes when you are assessing an olive oil – fruitiness, bitterness, pepperiness and intensity. At first, I found it difficult to distinguish between pepperiness and bitterness but when you taste an oil that is bitter (tastes like endives which is disliked immensely) then you get it! A top tip from Judy – rocket is peppery but not bitter and watercress is bitter but not peppery. I need to get some leaves in to put this to the test! Furthermore, the style of the olive oil can be mild, medium or robust. What’s important to remember is that colour is meaningless. You may think a greener olive oil is “younger” or more green, but actually, it is the level of chlorophyll in the olive that gives it its colour. One olive oil we tasted was emerald green and quite extraordinary.
And how to describe the flavours in an extra virgin olive oil? Well, you can break it down into three categories- fruity fruits (citrus, pineapple, banana, melon), Vegetal (artichoke, salad, grass, hay, wet leaf, chicory/endive) and lastly nuts (almond, cashew, walnut). On this last point what you don’t want in an olive oil is for it to only smell of nuts, stale nuts at that. Judy gave as a rancid oil to taste which literally smelled of old walnut shells. Another oil was cheesy and smelled like the inside of a charcuterie store – this is also a sign of a fault they call “fusty”. Although interestingly enough there is a place in Provence that produces an oil called olive noir that is “fusty” on purpose, and some people like that.
How do you rate quality in an extra virgin olive oil? The biggest takeaway for me was freshness. Now I can’t say I’ve ever drank as much olive oil as I did on the course, but if you do want to then you definitely detect the freshness on your palate of the higher quality extra virgin olive oils. Complexity is another key factor – one olive oil we tasted was completely spellbinding with the number of different aromas and flavours you could pick out. Lastly the finish and how long it is.
I’ve definitely been inspired by Judy and I know what I’m buying everyone for Christmas this year.