Liquid Gold: Blind-Tasting Olive Oil in Italy

A farm stay gives tips on quality olive oil, and how to taste it like a pro.

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Olive oil can range from pale gold to bright green in colour. In general, lighter oils tend to be mild in flavour, while the green ones can be sharp and peppery. Photo: IP Cuisines/Indiapicture

Four shot glasses are lined up in front of me, each numbered and containing a thimbleful of shimmering liquid, ranging from green to gold in colour. No, I’m not at a bar and there is no alcohol involved. I am about to be schooled in blind olive oil tasting. “Olive oil is good when you like it, no rules, you see?” says Antonio Roversi with a twinkle in his eye. Roversi owns Azienda del Carmine, an olive oil company in the Le Marche region of central Italy. The Carmine farm is spread over several acres of the undulating hills of Ancona, a district flanked by the Apennine Mountains on one side and the Adriatic Sea on the other.

We are seated in Roversi’s office, which adjoins A3 Passi, the agriturismo or farm stay, my husband and I are visiting. Earlier that day, we explored a small part of the farm, wandering among the bushy olive trees standing in neat rows. Their silvery green leaves shone in the morning sun, and their branches were weighed down with ripening fruit, in every shade from green to deep purple.

It’s autumn, olive harvest season, and my conversation with Roversi is punctuated by the din of the oil mill next door. The last couple of years have been difficult for olive growers, Roversi tells me. The winter of 2013-14 was very mild, allowing parasites like the olive fruit fly to flourish. It was followed by a wet summer that caused flooding and large-scale destruction of the year’s crop. Although I can see massive crates filled with olives, Roversi tells me that the crop is much less than normal. Still the mill is working through most nights, pressing olives to extract the greenish-gold oil.

Olvie Oil Italy Roversi

The first pressing of the olives yields high quality extra virgin olive oil. Photo: Rudolph Kelly/Eyeem/Getty Images

At the tasting table, I pick up the first glass and breathe deeply, taking in the lightly perfumed but otherwise unremarkable scent. The second glass has no distinguishing odours at all.

Glass three, however, has a sweet perfume. “Do I smell artichokes?” I ask Roversi, and he beams at me. “Italian olive oils usually have the perfume of almonds, artichokes, or mandarins, unlike the Spanish ones where banana is the predominant note,” he says. I inhale deeply from the last glass, and almost swoon at the full-bodied scents that the tasting notes tell me are grass, tomato leaves, and even some mandarin.

It’s time to taste and Roversi suggests that I try two of the four oils. I pick the first and the last. Though the first oil had a mildly pleasant aroma, it tastes of nothing at all and is quite greasy. I fervently hope that the fourth sample lives up to its perfume. It doesn’t disappoint, a grassy taste underlying the sharp flavour. Its pungent bitterness lingers at the back of my throat long after the tasting. Roversi then reveals what each of the four oils are. The first is a mass-produced Italian olive oil, available in supermarkets. “The second is a very bad Greek oil, which has been chemically treated hence the lack of perfume,” says Roversi. The last two oils come from the Carmine farm—the milder Leccino and my favourite, the Ascolana.

Our dinner that night is a four-course degustation menu at La Tavola del Carmine, the restaurant at the farm. Each dish showcases an oil from the Carmine arsenal. We begin with a warming lentil soup with a drizzle of blended olive oil, followed by a Parmesan risotto garnished with a red wine reduction and Frantoio olive oil, which adds a hint of bitter almond to the dish. The next course, or secondo, is juicy pork tenderloin with a splash of sharp, peppery Ascolana, which complements the meat perfectly. For dessert we indulge in a mille-feuille of chocolate and Chantilly cream, with a swirl of the Leccino. The mild, sweet oil adds an interesting depth to the dolce or dessert.

The Ascolana olive oil is the best I have ever tasted. Of course, just like wine, olive oil tastes are subjective too. Roversi agrees. “Ascolana olives are very big and beautiful, and very expensive. The oil is not too greasy and has robust flavours that stay in your mouth longer—the mark of a good olive oil,” he says. Once you have tasted this farm-to-table olive oil, supermarket varieties will pale in comparison. Which explains why I returned from my trip to Italy clutching two bottles of the precious stuff.

Harvesting Le Marche Italy

In Le Marche, olives are harvested in October and November. Large nets are placed under the trees and long-handled, vibrating tongs are used to comb the branches. Photo courtesy Le Marche Tourism

How to Taste Like a Pro

• Use small glasses, shot glasses, or espresso cups.

• Fill half the glass with olive oil.

• Cover the glass with one hand and warm it by cupping it with the other. Give the cup a little swirl. The warmth releases the aromas in the oil.

• Breathe deeply and smell the oil.

• Sip a small quantity of the oil, while breathing in air through your mouth. This is the strippagio method of airing the oil and allowing it to coat your mouth. This will help the aroma reach your taste buds.

• Now swallow the oil slowly. You might feel a slight burn at the back of your throat, you may even have to cough (the oil producer usually takes this as a compliment, a reflection on the good quality of the oil).

• In between tastings, eat bread or apple as a palate cleanser.

Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Liquid Gold”.

The Guide

Ancona is 303 km/3 hr north of Rome and 232 km/2.5 hr south of Bologna by road. It takes 2-4 hours to get to Ancona by train from either city (www.trenitalia.com; tickets from €9/₹700).

A3 Passi’s elegant, well-designed rooms come with all basic amenities (including free Wi-Fi), private patio, and swimming pool (Via del Carmine 51, 60020 Ancona; +39-71889403; aziendadelcarmine.it; doubles from €89/₹6,500, including breakfast). Degustation menu €30/₹2,320. Olive oil tasting available free of charge on request.

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  • Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer who is obsessed with coffee and all things Italian. She tweets and instagrams as @delishdirection.

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