(by Pablo Voitzuk) This year I was invited again to be a member of the judging panel for the new edition of the Japan Olive Oil Prize. This is an olive oil competition which takes place annually in Tokyo. It is organized by the Italian Chamber of Commerce in the city.
This judging panel is one of the strictest that I participate in, and its tasting is the most exhaustive and comprehensive. The competition is strictly for EVOO of great quality. Only 155 entries were submitted this year. The vast majority were from small to medium producers from Italy, who use cutting edge technology to produce their olive oils. As Marzia Migliorini, the panel leader, said in front of journalists and members of the Japanese industry during the awards ceremony: “These olive oils are not only made by producers of quality olive oil, they’re made with technology of the highest quality”. This technology consists mostly of new generation crushers, instead of the traditional hammer-mills. They use vertical or hermetic maloxors that often use a vacuum system and decanters that work without a final separator. They also filter the olive oil as soon as possible once it has left the decanter. On a side note, the discussion on filtration and its benefits has just started in California. Only Pacific Sun Farms and a couple of companies, or around 2% of the market use filtration. However, it is also worth noting that all the winners and awarded olive oils were filtered.
In a new and very interesting approach, Marzia suggested that we award the olive oils by grouping them according to their perfumes’ fruitiness typology. She did so because in her opinion as well as many others, it’s not quite fair to compare olive oils with very different characteristics, in the same way it would not be fair to decide a winner between a Cabernet and a Chardonnay.
Three groups were then established by the panel:
First, each taster would group the oils according to their proposed category, then a group discussion would confirm if the grouping was correct. Sometimes, certain blends or cultivars such as Frantoio, Raggiola or Coratina can have more than one of these features, which can make this characterization difficult.
This categorization was done by first screening the oils by their aromas, and then by tasting them as well. This is done because in order to do a complete assessment of the perfumes of a given olive oil, the retro-nasal perception is very important. In fact, in my experience, I manage to assess olive oils with predominant scents of artichoke more clearly once I tasted them. This is opposed to ones with predominant notes of tomato leaf and green almond, which are more easily recognizable by smelling alone.
Anybody who appreciates the goodness of olive oil (and you are one of these people if you’re reading this) should taste and assess every new olive oil that enters their home. To do so, put a small amount of the oil in a glass, and warm it up from under with one of your hands, with the top of the glass covered with your other hand. Once it is warm, bring the glass close to your nose and only then remove the hand covering the glass. A release of the volatiles will take place. Try then to familiarize yourself with the aromas and take note how fresh and vibrant they are.Then take a sip and bring air through your molars and as you do so, pay attention to the experience of the aromas that come to you retro-nasally. This little act will take you a long way in order to appreciate and enjoy olive oil. It will also help you to increase your ability to discriminate between poor, good, very good, and excellent EVOO.
On top of that, acknowledging these lovely perfumes will allow you to find the best pairings of fine olive oil with food. Again, this can seem initially a bit too much, maybe even snobbish, until you start doing it and see that, yes, it’s just a subtle nuance though recognizable and quite enjoyable once you bring your best attention to it. No doubt chefs and dedicated home cooks profit from it. I always keep in mind the quote: “God is in the details”.
In the panel, along with Marzia, there were two other people who are not only great tasters, but were both teachers of mine. Pierpaolo Arca and Marco Pampaloni were teachers in the official class I took years ago in Sardinia, Italy to become a taster. It was not only an honor to be tasting with them, it was also a challenge. These true masters (Marzia included) are way ahead of me in their remarkable capacity for nuances and details. There was a large number of truly, very competitive olive oils of excellence, and to be able to acknowledge these little details, as they do, was the only way to award some olive oils over others which were nearly the same level of excellence.
The other big lesson I took from this group of tasters was how they worked with focused attention. The length of their scrutiny was often longer than the rest of us and I think this is quite important. It also opens a fascinating discussion about how tasting and the Zen mindfulness practice (which will include the focused attention and the awareness of the whole experience and of yourself as well) may overlap, which, as you can tell, was very proper indeed since we were tasting in Japan, meters away from a Buddhist temple.
When work at the competition ended, I travelled South to visit Shodoshima, the little island in the Seto inland Sea of Japan, where olive oil is made and where I have a wonderful welcoming experience that I’ll share in a next post.
(originally appeared on pacificsunoliveoil.com)