My dad adheres to this consumer principle by which if you find something you like, you should buy a couple extra because if it’s really good they’ll probably stop making it right about the time you need another one. He usually means wool pants, but he could just as easily be talking about artisan olive oil, in which case the principle would be “Buy as many bottles as you can and use ’em as fast as you can because next year the oil will taste different.”
Oils that vary slightly in taste—or “flavor profile,” more properly—from year to year represent but one of the interesting variables involved in producing and enjoying a product with personality in a consumer climate that generally favors consistency and depressing sameness. People who like their preferred brand to taste the same every time they buy a bottle, says Le Petit Outre’s Jon Clarenbach, won’t find much reassurance in the ten or so varieties of oil laid out for the tasting at the bakery last Saturday. Le Petit has held several olive oil tastings to date, generally to celebrate the arrival of a new harvest’s bounty, and every new bottle of an old favorite has brought a few surprises.
“Every tasting we’ve done,” says Clarenbach, “the taste of these olive oils has been different. Big producers just buy huge quantities from all over the place based on supply and demand and the price they can get it for. All they’re trying to do is achieve a blend that tastes just like the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that.”
Gone are the days, Clarenbach says, when just any old gallon can of the stuff will do around the kitchen. Americans are getting savvier to artisan olive oils, and the demand is reflected in the dozens of different varieties that have become available in recent years.
“It’s changed a lot from the days of buying olive oil in a can with an Italian label on it.” says Clarenbach. “It’s more of an artisan thing now. Some of these growers produce a hundred cases a year. They have a thousand trees, that’s it.”
Another thing about labels: If the one on your oil doesn’t say “extra-virgin,” you might be getting more than just olive oil. The purity of retail olive oils, Clarenbach explains, goes from “pure” on one end to “extra-virgin” on the other, the latter designation the only guarantee that the product comes from a first pressing performed without heat or chemical extracting agents. Random chemical analyses of oils labeled merely “pure” have detected fifty to a hundred other ingredients in them, including castor oil. It’s got something to do with the Mafia, Clarenbach says—in fact, the real story bears certain similarities to The Godfather. If you want to learn more, he recommends checking out a book called Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit, written by former International Herald-Tribune editor Mort Rosenblum, whose interest in olives deepened into an passion after he bought a piece of property with a derelict olive grove in the south of France and brought it back to life. Buy the book, Clarenbach urges, and learn all about the sordid oil politics of Mafia involvement, misleading labels, supply-side olive economics and castor oil.
The selection of extra-virgin oils at the Le Petit tasting is arranged from the mildest at one end of the table to the strongest at the other, the sampling progression recommended to prevent the palate from becoming immediately overwhelmed. Experts recommend tasting only three to four oils at one sitting, and for participants not to drink coffee or eat sweets for at least half an hour before the tasting.
Clarenbach’s co-worker, Le Petit retail manager Brock Gnose, is also on hand to help folks along as they taste their way from Greece to New Zealand in olive oils. He’s been to several of the California estates that produce the oils sold at Le Petit, and like Clarenbach he knows his way around a “grassy note” and a “distinct buttery flavor that hints of artichokes” in the tasting process.
Gnose’s personal tastes seem to prefer the stronger, greener oils pressed from olives that are picked barely ripe or even a bit underripe to the milder ones like the Greek Morea, second in the tasting order, a buttery oil made from just one variety of olive. Green oils typically have a “grassier” flavor and finish with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste, a small tannic bite that catches in your throat and makes you feel like you have to cough. Green oils of differing strengths, in fact, are often referred to as one- or two-cough oils. That “peppery” finish, Gnose says, is a specialty of Tuscan oils like Castellare di Ugnana and Badia a Coltibuono’s Albereto. The Albereto, in particular, packs a peppery wallop that definitely rates it a two-cough oil. It’s made from fruits picked right at the end of the “white phase,” before the olives are really ripe.
Different oils are also created for different culinary uses, Gnose adds. Some are intended to be general-purpose oils, some are blended in such a way that will allow their use in light sautéing without a significant change in flavor, some are “finishing” oils to be drizzled over cooked foods. It comes down to the kind of oil the artisan wants to make.
“All the artisan estates are very specific about their flavor profiles,” Gnose explains. “It’s something they sit down and they formulate to get exactly the profile they want, so that from year to year as the fruit changes a little bit they can adjust the concentration slightly to keep the flavor profile as close as possible.”
“People’s palates are different,” Gnose shrugs. “It’s a fruit. Some people like certain kinds of fruits, some people don’t, so the way people taste these oils is different for every person.”
The next tasting at Le Petit Outre will be sometime this summer, probably coinciding with the arrival of the first bottles of the New Zealand artisan olive oil Serendipity. Our spring is, like, their fall down there, so the harvests are six months apart.