Dr. Saverio Pandolfi

Dr. Saverio Pandolfi, an Italian olive oil expert at the National Research Council - Institute of Biosciences and Bioresources (CNR-IBBR) in Perugia, Italy, visited the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania in Crete, Greece last month to work with researchers and taste Greek olive oils. We discussed olive oil tasting and cooking with olive oil.

Overall, Pandolfi focuses on the characterization of olive varieties, evaluation of olive oil quality, propagation, cultivation, and orchard management, among other things, according to the CNR-IBBR website. He told me he also works with the Slow Food organization, advises olive oil producers seeking to produce better extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), and experiments with new recipes using different types of EVOOs.

Olive Oil Tasting

Pandolfi tastes 200 olive oils a year, comparing samples of the same variety in different countries (for example, Koroneikis from Italy, Spain, and Greece) to consider the way soil, climatic conditions, technology, and other factors affect taste. He has been impressed by Greeks’ improvement of many steps in their olive oil production technique.

Pandolfi started tasting Greek olive oils last week. This was just the beginning of a process that should continue over two or three years, he said, given variations in climatic conditions that affect olive oils. He suggested that it’s best to taste olive oils in the morning, before eating much; he doesn’t eat or even drink water for at least an hour before tasting.

It is very important, Pandolfi said, for the first flavor we notice when tasting olive oil to be the taste of olives, a fruity flavor. He mentioned that we get three different olive oils from one variety of olive, depending on the olives’ maturity level when they are harvested: green, medium green, or fully ripe. So the fruity flavor varies on a scale from green to black olives.

Next we may taste hints of other fruit, such as banana or apple--but not grapes, we hope, because a winey flavor in olive oil indicates a defect that is to be avoided. Pandolfi cautioned that olive oil is “like a sponge,” so that wine destroys the oil if oil and wine are produced too close to each other.

Pandolfi finds that the aromas of almond, tomato leaves, herbs, flowers, greens, or artichoke produce intriguing differences in certain olive oils. He pointed out that we continue tasting olive oil even after it has left our mouth because of oxygen on our tongue and in our saliva. This aftertaste is important, and it’s best for it to linger in the mouth.

Pandolfi described a few olive oils he tasted in recent blind taste tests in Crete, all of them freshly produced on the island. One was an early harvest Koroneiki extra virgin that struck him as green and fruity with avocado and chicory, plus a bitterness in harmony with the rest of the flavors. (Harmony, he said, is very important in olive oil.) He was impressed that it felt very clean and fluent, like “water in a little river in the mountains, flowing very fast.”

He also tried a Tsounati (also called Mastoid) early harvest extra virgin olive oil. This struck him as clean smelling and delicate, less fluent than the Koroneiki, but a very harmonic mix of bitter, spicy, and pungent, with the sensation growing nicely in the mouth after tasting.

Finally, a blend of early harvest EVOOs had “a very interesting characteristic that is very difficult to reproduce – it just happens sometimes,” and it’s very rare: “a little note of red fruit—berries.” This EVOO “opens the nose like smelling mint – fragrant, fresh, fruity green with a little note of red fruit—berries.” Pandolfi said, “every year I want to produce an oil with the berry sensation, but I destroy a lot of olives to arrive at this.” This early harvest blend also had a hint of wildflowers.

Cooking with Olive Oil

Having cooked in high quality restaurants, Pandolfi dreams of opening a very small restaurant just two days a week to try out his inventions and experiments with new recipes. He pointed out that different olive oils make an incredible difference in the “quality of the food.” For example, a bitter oil that is very strong, pungent, and green (as well as rich in polyphenols) is best with vegetables, soup, or steak cooked on the grill.

Of course, he added, there are many different types of bitterness for different recipes. The bitterness of artichoke or chicory is good for vegetable soup or for grilling oiled bread with garlic. He suggested using a bitter oil with a bitter vegetable such as eggplant, greens, or green pepper: “that’s perfect. Oil absorbs the aromas and changes the aromas of the vegetable.” Try eating green pepper with a little salt, with or without olive oil; “you’ll see it’s completely different.”

Pandolfi considered a delicate oil “very interesting” because on the island of Crete “they use it with fish, which is delicate”--an appropriate combination. On the other hand, “if you want to create a new sensation it’s possible” to use very small amounts of bitter oil with fish.

He likes to prepare dry cod fish with Pecorino Romano or Graviera (strong cheeses) with lemon, bread crumbs, eggs, and a very strong extra virgin olive oil. He bakes it (at less than 170 degrees Celsius to avoid damage to the EVOO) until the fish is golden brown, then serves it with plenty of lemon. He said this way “you have a different sensation,” very crisp with a very rich aroma from the oil, because the egg absorbs the aromas of the oil.

With countless variations in fruitiness, bitterness, and other flavors available in the olive oils of the world, why not have a number of EVOOs on hand for varied pairings with foods in different recipes?

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