Tasting Mediterranean

Wine & Olive Oil

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„A Faultless Olive Oil“

Olive oil expert Ana Carrilho talks with Daniela Wiebogen about the special qualities of Portuguese olive oil, the exceptional sweetness of the Galega olive, the healthiness of the oleic acids in olive oil, and the secret of the blue tasting glasses.

Photo by Manfred Klimek

Ana Carrilho, we are sitting here at a long table in a brightly illuminated tasting room and in front of us stand small blue glasses, not wine glasses, rather glasses without a stem shaped like those used to serve gin in bars. We’re not going to taste gin, rather olive oil. Why use these blue glasses?

That’s exactly the question most visitors ask who are tasting olive oil for the first time. The answer is simple. The intense blue colour masks the colour of the olive oil so that your judgement of its quality isn’t influenced by its appearance. We assess olive oils not only by their smell and taste, but also with our eyes. And with olive oil that can quickly lead you to the wrong conclusion, because the colour can send a misleading signal. We want to avoid that happening, and that’s why we use these pretty blue glasses.

We’re all familiar with professional wine tastings, or at least have a general idea what happens there. What makes an olive oil tasting different from a wine tasting? And how do you taste olive oil?

The procedure and appearance of an olive oil tasting certainly has many similarities to a wine tasting. However, there are some important differences. Let me explain our tasting in some detail. First of all you pour some oil in the blue tasting glass, after which you must immediately cover it, either with a glass lid, one or both of your hands, otherwise you quickly loose the filigree aromas of the oil. The hand that holds the glass in its palm warms it, and through the glass also the olive oil. Then we swirl the glass, smell the oil and note the impressions we gain of it. The first sip of oil should be held in your mouth for several seconds in order for the taste to open up fully. Rapidly drawing some air into your mouth a couple of times helps the aromas of the oil to unfurl. After it has left a lasting impression the oil should be swallowed in order to experience the aftertaste, and for this you need to exhale through your nose. One other important point. Between tasting different oils it’s helpful to neutralize the palate. This is done either by drinking a sip of water or eating a slice of apple. That’s what the small plates of sliced apple on the table are for.        

What differences in the taste of different olive oils do you find?

Olive oil has a wider spectrum of flavours than is normally acknowledged. They can be sweet, but also bitter or sharp. Sweet-tasting oils have the great advantage that they can be used for the preparation of main courses and deserts. On the other hand, they don’t keep that long, although this still means about two years, but a bottle of olive oil should be consumed within that period anyway.

From which varieties is sweet olive oil produced in Portugal? 

In the first instance from Galega olives, one of the oldest and most famous Portuguese olive varieties. The taste of Galega olives is reminiscent of green banana, apple and almond. In spite of its sweetness and creaminess Galega oil is very intense in flavour and is therefore ideal for putting the finishing touch to a Carpaccio.

You always emphasize the importance of “Extra Virgin”. What exactly does this designation mean?

Extra Virgin means an olive oil of the highest quality level that has not been manipulated in any way – a faultless olive oil. Only mechanical pressing is allowed for the production of this type of oil, and only the first cold pressing should be used.

Cold pressed, what does that really mean?

Cold pressing is quasi standard for the production of Extra Virgin olive oils. That means the temperature during the pressing may not exceed 27° Centigrade, because above 27° Centigrade chemical process can begin that alter the taste of the oil.

How do you find the best products if your goal is to buy only good and top quality olive oils?

That’s not easy to say, because in the final analysis personal taste is decisive. However, there are a few simple guidelines, for example, don’t buy oil in bottles with pale glass (mostly they contain poor quality oil), because light accelerates oxidation of the oil. Just as with wine you need patience to gain the experience that will enable you to find excellent oils that agree with your personal taste. You must taste many different oils. Another important principal: cheap oils are not necessarily of poor quality, but really good Extra Virgin olive oil starts at around 10 Euros per litre.

What makes Portuguese olive oil so special? And why is it so little known outside Portugal? Mostly consumers think of Italy or Greece when olive oil is mentioned.

That’s because most consumers are brand orientated, and Italy is a well-known food brand. It is rather similar with Greece, because it is also Mediterranean and that’s a brand too. Portuguese olive oil still has to become a brand, but this is true of Portugal as a whole too. The biggest difference between Italian and Portuguese olive oil is, of course, the taste. Italian oil is generally sharper and more bitter, while Portuguese oil is sweeter and milder.  

You hear again and again that olive oil is healthy, what makes it so healthy?

You not only hear that, it’s also been proven scientifically and is therefore no longer just a rumour. The polyphenols in olive oil are what make it so healthy. They are not only responsible for the fruity notes in the aroma and taste, but also have a major effect on your health. Olive oil also contains a lot of oleic acid, the most important of the simple unsaturated fatty acids. Oleic acid helps lower the cholesterol level of the blood and keep blood pressure in check. And I don’t need to tell you that olive oil also contains many vitamins.  

Is it true that you shouldn’t use olive oil for sautéing?

No, this is not true. Olive oil is ideal for sautéing. Depending on the type you can heat it as high as 230° Centigrade. The decisive thing is the smoking point, meaning the temperature at which you start to see it smoke. Native olive oil has a high smoking point and is therefore – against popular belief – ideal for sautéing. The only exception to this is unfiltered olive oil for which the smoking point is just under 130° Centigrade, and it is therefore only suitable for cooking at lower temperatures.

At the beginning of the interview, in connection with Galega oil, we talked about how long you can keep olive oil. What is your general recommendation?

Really good olive oil can be kept for at least 24 months, but many can be kept even longer. This is very dependent on correct storage though. Olive oil is best stored like wine, in cool places away from the light. Some components of olive oil oxidize very easily, for which reason you should always tightly close the bottle. Also, direct light accelerates the ageing of the oil. If stored incorrectly olive oil quickly turns rancid, which you can easily smell. But let’s be honest, who wants to store olive oil for so long when it tastes great and makes every dish a pleasure? That’s why it’s better to consume it quickly and open the next bottle.


Interview by Daniela Wiebogen.