olive tree & wall

The Sense of Extra-virgin

I’m looking forward to an exciting two-day seminar in Florence this week as a group of what Italians call intenditori (meaning connoisseurs) gather to explore the sensory complexities of extra-virgin olive oils. It’s a topic that’s very much in the foreground after yet another UC Davis report on extra-virgin imported into the U.S.

(The Davis investigators looked at a few standard brands sold in California retail outlets–Bertolli, Carapelli, Colavita, et al–and found them seriously deficient, enough so that, according to the report, they no longer qualify as extra-virgin.) The two-day seminar, led by Professor Erminio Monteleone, a biotechnologist at Florence’s Universita degli Studi and one of Europe’s prominent authorities in the very young field of sensory evaluation, will teach us how to determine complex sensory qualities (taste, aroma, texture) and how those qualities relate to both defects and positive attributes of oil. Sounds super-scientific, the kind of situation that ultimately leads me to question: What the heck am I doing here?

But I’ve heard Professor Monteleone in the past and I know he’s one of those gifted teachers who can both explain complicated ideas and lead me, albeit haltingly, to new discoveries. And there’s always so much more to learn about the timeless subject of olive oil. One new way of looking at it, Monteleone says, is through the lens of something called Temporal Dominance of Sensations, which, simply put, means how a single set of flavors—a single spoonful of extra-virgin olive oil–can vary over time on the palate: what it tastes like initially, how that taste persists or fails to do so, and how in fact it changes over a brief period of time.

The other piece of the puzzle that fascinates me is how flavors in extra-virgin can change depending on what they’re paired with—a piece of rare roast beef, for instance, or a simple garlic-flavored bean stew, or various types of bitter or sweet salad greens. Different oils react differently to foods and bring out contrasting and sometimes even clashing properties—all information that is of course invaluable for chefs but just a small part of the fascination of extra-virgin olive oil. My new favorite combo: three drops of our own 2010 harvest Tuscan olive oil, one drop of fresh lemon juice, and one sparkling Pemaquid oyster. Or five or six.

No oysters in Florence, alas, but we’ll have four separate tasting sessions over the course of the two days. So that leads me to the usual pre-exam tension: Will I be able to taste anything at all? Will I pass or fail? Will I get an A+ or flunk out? No, it’s not that kind of exam but long decades after my exam-taking days are gone, I still can’t help but feel the agida of apprehension. Wish me luck!

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