I just finished reading Tom Mueller’s book Extra Virginity; The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

But before I get to the scandal – let’s talk olive oil tasting.   Tasting olive oil, according to the Italian olive oil tasting expert in Tom’s book, explains how:

  1. Smell sample deeply several times, trying to clear the mind in between sniffs
  2. Take a small sip and roll oil around the tongue to coat the inside of the mouth
  3. Then, perform the loud slurpy “strippaggio”
  4. Clear the palate with mineral water from time to time

The “strippaggio” cannot be described easily but if you want to hear how it is done listen to this link at Splendid Table: http://www.splendidtable.org/story/blind-tasting-6-above-average-california-olive-oils

The “strippaggio” is a method of sucking air into your mouth while oil coats your tongue which allows smells and flavors of each oil to waft up and be sensed. I bought several bottles of olive oils this past week and conducted my own taste test and I encourage you do the same.  You will discover vast differences between different brands, I did.

That gets me to the scandal part of the story.

What the olive oil label says may not be what’s in the bottle.  Health benefits of olive oil have driven up consumption and subsequently, nefarious practices in this industry. Tom Mueller’s book suggests that some companies may blend in cheaper oils resulting in a wide disparity of quality.

The health benefits of high quality extra virgin olive oil are many. According to the Mayo Clinic: The main type of fat found in all kinds of olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acids. If your diet replaces saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats such as monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, you may gain certain health benefits. (Because they) may help lower your risk of heart disease by improving related risk factors. For instance, monounsaturated fats have been found to lower your total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. And some research shows that they may also benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes.”

But as in all food, more refining means fewer health benefits and reduction of flavor notes that come with freshly pressed olive oil. Yes, there are laws and regulations but in some countries they may not be enforced or difficult to enforce.  There are many different grades of olive oil and blending of more refined lower grades (and other oils) with higher grades of olive oil may go undetected.

I read olive oil labels checking for expiration dates.  What variety of olive was used? But most importantly, how does it taste? This will become your “true north” when selecting olive oil. Taste. Taste. Taste.  Taste is my best indicator of flavor and quality.

When I taste my olive oil the descriptors I hope to use are: (according to Mr. Mueller’s book)

  • Artichoke
  • Fresh-cut grass
  • Green tomato
  • Kiwi
  • Peppery

If it is not good, the descriptors I will use are:

  • Fusty
  • Musty
  • Rancid
  • Briney/Winey/Vinegary
  • Cucumber
  • Grubby

Olive oil has a shelf life of 18-24 months (if stored properly) but unfortunately harvest dates are seldom listed on bottles. Maybe someday we will see harvest dates on the label but in the meantime I will continue to taste and slurp my way through the olive oil shelf looking for brands that reliably deliver great taste.