Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet and certainly one of my favourite ingredients to indulge in. It made sense then, when we were visiting the south of Spain, to attend an olive oil tasting on Mediterranean soil. Spain are in fact the world’s biggest producers of olive oil, with the Andalusian region providing the perfect hot and dry climate to grow hundreds of different olive tree varieties. Taking place in the small town of Niguelas, we were in good hands to learn all about the olive oil making process. Here are 10 facts I learned during the tour that you can put to good use when choosing your next olive oil…
An olive grove in Niguelas.
ABOUT OUR TOUR
We decided to go on an olive oil tasting during our stay in Granada, Andalusia. One of the closest locations to do so was with Olive Oil Tour Granada who operate in a small town in the countryside, about 30 minutes drive from the city. The tour included a walk through the olive grove pictured above, as well as the 15th century mill. Afterwards we had a comprehensive tasting with take home samples of the olive oil and transfers back to Granada. Our English-speaking guide was fantastic and gave a really in-depth explanation of the whole production process. She also shared some local traditions for pairing oil with other ingredients.
Looking out over surrounding farms from the olive mill.
OLIVE OIL TASTING FACTS
Here is the information I found most interesting during our olive oil tasting. I hope you will find something to take away from this and use when you next purchase some liquid gold.
Olive trees only grow 1 millimetre per year and can live for thousands of years. Older trees have a thicker trunk but the size of the olives they produce is determined by the tree’s species and doesn’t change with age. Older trees do however producer a richer flavoured olive oil. Olive oil that is produced by exceptionally old trees may mention the age on the bottle.
Trees can be propagated using the root cutting of an olive tree which will produce a tree of the same variety. You can also use an olive from the tree but there is the possibility that it will produce a different species of tree due to the cross-pollination that occurs between different olive trees in a grove.
Only water is added during the olive oil production process where olives are milled from whole and crushed into a paste. This olive paste is then ‘pressed’ at a cold temperature until the oil is extracted. The whole pieces and pits are left trapped inside filters.
Extra Virgin olive oil refers to olive oil that has been pressed only once (also known as ‘first press’) and kept at a low temperature during the process. These olive oils are usually stored in dark glass bottles to further limit heat penetration from the sun. If this ‘first press’ olive oil is found to have imperfections at the tasting stage it will be labeled as Virgin olive oil.
Taste-testers who are comparing olive oils (how do I get that job?) taste each one inside a small blue glass. This is so that they are not influenced by the colour of the oil which can subconsciously suggest a stronger or milder flavour.
Olive oil that is produced from organic olive farms in the EU is marked with a green leaf symbol on the back of the bottle.
Olive oil that is labeled as ‘light’ or ‘100% pure’ is misleading in that it is not a superior oil. Rather, it has been through an extra treatment process to remove imperfections. This olive oil is in fact lesser in quality than ‘first press’ but is perfect for cooking because it has a higher smoke point. Our tour guide pointed out that these highly treated oils lose a lot of their natural flavour during the refining process. Therefore, they are not too dissimilar to sunflower oil which is often much cheaper.
When olive oil tasting it is best to warm the tasting cup up between your palms. This releases more of its aroma. Before tasting the oil smell it to determine whether it has earthy, fruity or other unique characteristics. When you sip the oil swish it around in your mouth for a couple of seconds before swallowing. This allows you to taste how ‘smooth’ the flavour is around your whole mouth. Once you swallow the oil its pepperiness can be felt at the back of your throat which varied dramatically between different oils. Generally olives that were milled soon after they were picked will produce a strong peppery feeling in the throat.
It is possible for flavoured olive oils to be classified as ‘first press’ if their extra ingredients are added during the milling process. For example, we tried a basil flavoured oil which had full basil leaves added to the mill and crushed along with the olives.
Olive oil is naturally cloudy at the end of the pressing process. It is only made clear for aesthetic reasons in today’s market.
A traditional mill for crushing whole olives into a paste.
Demarcated olive pits outside the mill.
One happy little taster leaving Niguelas.
Our tour guide also introduced us to a different take on olive oil which was an orange flavoured oil from Seville. It is slightly sweet and perfect for pairing with desserts like you would a syrup. We tried a traditional way to enjoy this oil which involves drizzling it on bread and sprinkling with raw sugar. It was really addictive and not surprisingly a popular snack for Spanish children.
If you are heading to Spain I would recommend going on an olive oil tasting tour. Not only to get a sense of the unique landscape that produces such oil but also to learn how to spot a good quality one. This particular tour has a great boutique for shopping every oil from the tasting, as well as a nifty nozzle for spraying just the right amount of vinegar to make a vinaigrette from your oil….they’ve thought of everything.
Photography by Escape Button.