Participants at the olive oil tasting seminar in Rethymno seated at tables, tasting olive oil samples and making notes

What do you need to know about extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)? That depends. Most people shopping for an EVOO to use at home can taste the oil to see if they like it, consider its best-buy date, classification, and origin, then choose a dark glass bottle or tin they’ll use within 3 months. But professionals who work with EVOOs can benefit from knowing more.

Anyone involved with the production, purchase, sale, marketing, and/or distribution of olive oil has good reasons for additional olive oil education. The same is true of professional chefs. Others who appreciate especially fine extra virgin olive oils with exquisite flavor and particularly noteworthy health benefits may also want to learn about olive oil tasting, which specialists call organoleptic evaluation or sensory analysis, since it uses the senses of taste and smell

The more olive oil professionals learn about organoleptic evaluation, the more they know how to buy and use what truly suits them, to sell what is best for their customers, or to produce the best possible product. The identification of particular positive traits of an extra virgin olive oil helps to determine appropriate uses of it, while identification of specific defects in other olive oils can be linked to mistakes that can be avoided in the future.

For years, Eleftheria Germanaki, an experienced educator and judge at many international olive oil competitions, has been striving to enhance the quality of olive oil on the Greek island of Crete by helping Cretans in the olive oil sector learn more about this liquid gold. She recently organized an all-day seminar at the olive oil tasting laboratory for the Union of Agricultural Cooperatives in Rethymno, Crete which she directs.

At this seminar, chemists, agronomists, salespeople, restaurant personnel, millers, bottlers, and olive oil producers had the rare opportunity to learn from another internationally recognized olive oil expert, Efi Christopoulou. Christopoulou is a pioneering Greek chemist and olive oil taster and judge who has worked with the International Olive Council and the European Union, as well as introducing the olive oil tasting method to Greece decades ago.

On June 22, Christopoulou shared “The Secrets of Organoleptic Evaluation” and discussed “The Quality of Olive Oil from the Olive Grove to the Shelf.” She began by reviewing basic definitions of the categories of olive oil, as defined by the International Olive Council, then continued with an overview of olive oil varieties, production, tasting, positive attributes, defects, and the significance of all of this. Christopoulou also invited seminar participants to taste 20 different olive oil samples and led a discussion of their attributes.

Participants were reminded that virgin olive oil is the juice of the olive, which is obtained only by mechanical means. Extra virgin olive oil is the best category in both flavor and nutritional value. Some of the olive oil obtained by mechanical means has no fruitiness and so many defects that it is categorized as lampante virgin olive oil and not considered eatable as it is. Blends of refined and virgin olive oils, and olive pomace oil, are also sold in Europe, but these were not the focus of the seminar.

How can we identify a virgin or extra virgin olive oil? European law requires both chemical tests and a sensory evaluation by a trained and repeatedly tested panel of 8 to 12 individuals. Christopoulou reported that this law has both led to better protection for consumers and improved the overall quality of extra virgin olive oil.

One reason is that expert tasters can use an olive oil’s flavor and aroma to determine whether good practices were followed in the olive grove, the olive mill, and storage facilities. If defects are detected, tasters can identify them and explain their possible causes so methods can be improved, and a higher quality olive oil can be produced in the following years. The intensity of each positive attribute is also traceable to certain factors, so a detailed sensory analysis can help determine how to create and store olive oils with particular desirable qualities.

The sensory evaluation focuses on fruitiness, spiciness, and pungency—the positive attributes—and on potential defects (such as flavors or aromas that are muddy, earthy, winey, or rancid). Virgin and extra virgin olive oils must have some fruitiness and limited defects. Since the first goal of sensory evaluation is to categorize an oil as EVOO, virgin olive oil, or lampante based on fruitiness and defects, the first practice tasting session at the seminar began working toward this.

During a second tasting session, the group tested their ability to perceive and distinguish the positive and negative characteristics of various olive oils. For the final practice session, samples of eight EVOOs from various parts of Greece were tasted to analyze their levels of fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency. These beginning tasters were better at evaluating types of EVOOs that were familiar to them. With more than 100 olive varieties in Greece alone, however, it is a challenge for most to familiarize themselves with all the possibilities.

The tasting lab director, Eleftheria Germanaki, told Greek Liquid Gold that seminars like this are “very important for Crete, because they help build a culture of quality.” She invites some of the top professionals in their fields to teach: those who are “recognized for their experience and knowledge and, as Greeks, they know Greek varieties, particularities, and the mentality of the farmers, millers, and bottlers” who attend the seminars. In this way, they can pass on experience-based, accurate information in a way that makes sense to their listeners, helping participants to elevate the quality of Greek olive oil.

Thanks to Emmanouil Karpadakis for the photos. The olive oil education effort in Rethymno continued with a second day of seminars focused on critical points of olive oil quality, olive oil production, and Cretan olive oil in the international market.

All businesses, organizations, and competitions involved with Greek olive oil or agrotourism or food tourism in Greece, plus everyone interested in supporting Greeks working in these sectors, are invited to reach out to Greek Liquid Gold readers in 188 countries by sponsoring the Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil website. This is the only wide-ranging English-language site focused on news and information from the Greek olive oil world.

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