I’m not exactly a wine-tasting connoisseur, but I do know that when I drink wine I should be on the lookout for things. Things like floral, citrus, and oak. Everyone who’s ever had a sip of wine could tell you that their beverage tasted at least partially like something else: the deep fruitiness of blackberries, notes of sweet pear and tangerine, spicy pepper and honeysuckle. All those beautiful smells and tastes.
What I didn’t know, until I recently took a class on it, was that people do exactly the same thing to olive oil.
The class took place aboard our tiny river cruise ship while we were docked on the borderlands between Portugal and Spain. No newbie to European cuisine, I knew that olive oil was much more sacred here than in my country (where we use it to sauté everything, even though it doesn’t really have a high boiling point and so isn’t actually very effective for stovetop cooking).
There’s even a colored wheel for the serious taster, with all the possible flavor profiles slicing the pie into an impossible number of possibilities. At the beginning of our class, our instructor gave us each a copy of the wheel, a tasting journal, and four small cups of oil, with colors that reminded me of golden-yellow, lemon chiffon, oak-aged chardonnay, and cat pee. She walked us through the wheel: “common oil characteristics,” she said, pointing to the wheel projected on her Powerpoint slide, “include grassy, metallic, musty, fruity….” As she talked and told us which were good tastes and which were bad ones (hint: musty is not so good), I became more and more dubious. In all my life, every single olive oil I’d ever had tasted exactly the same.
Unfortunately, so did all three of the cups in front of me.
And, oh, did I try. Painfully so, going even so far as to copy notes from the stranger sitting next to me and tossing in comments like, “Ah, yes, I can really taste the freshly-cut grass in this one” and “Mm, this one really tastes of summer sunshine and flavors of apricot.” I don’t think anyone believed me or my asinine comments, but I had panicked in the inherent sameness of all the olive oils I’d slurped down and didn’t want to sound uncultured. After all, I do write about food.
We listened as the instructor asked for volunteers from the audience to share their perceptions of the distinct oils. We listened as she talked, a lot, about each one, and the region from which it came, and how official taste-testers described it, and how it’s marketed to European shoppers.
My husband finished his sample platter and leaned close to my ear. “So, I couldn’t tell the difference between any of them!” he said, his eyes wide. “Could you?” Regrettably, I shook my head and whispered that they could all be the same cheap oil I use at home.
I’m pretty sure no one else heard us, so I think our secret is safe. In the meantime, I’m back to cooking with the giant tub-sized bottle of olive oil that has lasted me for months, but I have absolutely no idea how I would describe it to you.
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet. A special thanks to Viking River Cruises for sponsoring her trip to Portugal and introducing her to olive oil tastings!