When you walk into our shop with twenty or thirty olive oils, it’s hard to know where to begin. We ask you what you’re looking for. How should you know?
Nate Bradley at Amphora Nueva in Berkeley, where there are sometimes more than three dozen extra virgin olive oils on tap, shows you how to make a start:
- “Olive oils are classified in three levels of intensity, mild, medium, and robust,” Bradley explains, “start with a mild oil.”
- Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a small cup – some places have special glass tasting cups – Amphora Nueva uses small plastic cups for tasting. You may use bread to taste extra virgin olive oils, but if you’re truly interested in the flavor of the oil, use the cup.
- Warm the oil: nest the cup in the palm of one hand, and cover the top with your other hand. Gently rock and twist the cup in your hand for about 20 seconds to warm the olive oil. The warming and the “swishing” release the fragrant aromatics in the oil – its “nose.”
- Raise the cup to your nose but only partially lift your hand from the cup; tuck your nose into the cup, then take a deep whiff of the oil. The first, fragrant “top notes” of the oil (its “nose”) are your clues to its flavor.
- Make a note of the nose—is it “big” (heavily fragrant), or is there little fragrance at all? Can you identify the characteristics? “Fruity?” “Grassy?” Or, is there something more subtle?
- Taste the oil: draw a long, slurpy sip into while curling your tongue upward, taking a fair amount of air into your mouth along with that first sip in order to aerate the oil. Roll the oil across your tongue and all the way to the back of your mouth, allowing your tongue to identify as many aspects of the flavor as possible.
- Okay, now you may swallow the oil — some people spit at this point. By now your tongue and nose have all the information they need to tell you how it tastes. Note the flavor characteristics as well as descriptors and lingering sensations – even viscosity. Is it fruity? Peppery? Pungent? Bitter? What did you like most? These distinctions will point you toward your favorites, and rule out other oils. With dozens of oils to choose from, you can be pretty specific.
- When you know how to taste and identify the flavors of an extra virgin olive oil, you can start to narrow your choices down the varieties you’ll like. And with the vocabulary to describe them, you can ask for the particular characteristics you enjoy most. You’re on your way to finding a favorite.