Olive Oil Tasting – Interview with a Professional Taster

Interview with Cesar Colliga Martinez – International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) Tasting Panel Chief.

The panel of olive tasters is an integral part in the process of designating the extra virgin grade to a sample of olive oil. Aside from the fundamental requirement that it contain less than 0.8% oleic acid, among other restrictions on its chemical makeup, olive oil must pass through the noses and mouths of an officially approved panel to assure that it meets the sensory standards befitting a product of the highest quality. So who better to talk to about the art of olive oil tasting than a man bearing the official Spanish Ministry of Agriculture and International Olive Oil Council title of ‘tasting panel chief’, entitling him to set up panels throughout the E.U. and the member countries of the I.O.O.C., and who makes his living as a consultant assisting European denominations of origin and government bodies in establishing and receiving approval of their own.
Our interview today is with César Cólliga Martínez, a Madrid native holding a degree in agricultural and food chemistry from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, who at 35 years of age has become one of the country’s acknowledged experts in this field. Through his consulting firm, Arco Agroalimentaria, Mr. Cólliga has successfully guided the agriculture ministries of the autonomous communities of Murcia, Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha and Extremadura (ed. note: these political subdivisions can be considered the equivalent of individual states in the U.S.) and the Centre for Investigation and Quality Control of the Spanish Ministry of Health through the process of receiving official accreditation from the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture and the International Olive Oil Council.
Cesar is currently working with the Portuguese Protected Denomination of Origin, Tras Os Montes, to bring the skills of its tasting panel in line with what is required of a European P.D.O. The feather in Mr. Cólliga’s cap is that no panel he has trained has ever failed to pass the rigorous certification test required for accreditation. The interview was conducted by Charles Butler Mackay of http://www.olivegazette.blogspot.com/.

Charles Butler.: Is there a prescribed line of study to become an accredited olive oil taster?

Cesar Colliga.: No, there is none, although courses are offered in several centres in Spain. To receive your accreditation, one has to pass the test. How you come to achieve the skills necessary is entirely up to yourself.

C.B.: In your case how did this happen?

C.C.: When I graduated from university, I first went into business as a commercial agent in the olive oil industry. This gave me the opportunity to come into direct contact with olive oils from most of the producing areas in Spain. When I saw the possibilities available for someone with those skills in the context of the modernization of the Spanish industry, I went on to learn as much as I could.

C.B.: What are the official requirements for a taster?

C.C.: In order to receive official accreditation, a candidate must twice successfully grade five samples of olive oil of known qualities in such a way that his assessment coincides with that already assigned by the Ministry of Agriculture. They send you five bottles, identified only by numbers, and you taste them and fill out the official grading form. If it doesn’t coincide with what they have already decided are the characteristics of the oil, you don’t get your license. And this process is repeated twice a year for a long as you hold your license.

C.B.: What are you fundamentally looking for when you first test an olive oil?

C.C.: The very first thing we want to find out is if the oil has any negative attributes and exactly what they are – anything that indicates that there might be faults stemming from an inadequate production process. If a taster finds defects in the oil, he first categorizes them by type and then describes their intensity.

C.B.: What do you do if you find any?

C.C.: The I.O.O.C. provides an official form for tasters to fill out. (ed. note: the reader may download a PDF copy of this form at the end of this interview.) It lists the possible defects, as well as the positive attributes, so we basically check off the problem areas if there are any. All tasters must use this form, by the way. That’s how the process is standardized.

C.B.: What are the categories of undesirable smells?

C.C.: The most important ones are ‘rancid’, ‘winey-vinegary’, ‘fusty’, which is the flavour that derives from the fermentation that takes place when a producer leaves the fruit heaped up for a long period before delivering it to the press, ‘muddy sediment’, which is an off smell that results from the oil having been stored in vats that have not been regularly cleaned, allowing the accumulation of sediments, and ‘musty-humid’.

C.B.: Are there more?

C.C.: Yes. We could also include ‘hay-wood’, an odour that occurs if the olives are allowed to freeze on the tree before harvesting.

C.B.: How does that happen?

C.C.: Well, if the fruit freezes, the molecular structure of the olive is broken and the oil ends up coming in contact with the pit, which imparts this odour. There are seven or eight more known defects, but these really are not very important.

C.B.: Obviously, the next question would be about the good qualities that a taster is looking for.

C.C.: Once we have determined that the defects, if any, are not sufficient to eliminate our olive oil sample from the extra virgin category, we go looking for the good points. The first, and most important point is that it must smell of olives. It is, after all, the juice of that fruit.

C.B.: And then?

C.C.: Next we detect what are called the ‘green odours’, and there are two of them. An extra virgin olive oil should smell of either lawn grass or green tree leaves. Those are the two options given on the form. For example, in the area we are in now (ed. note: the Jaén province of Spain) where nearly all the olives are picual, the smell would be ‘green leaves’. In reality, oil from this varietal reminds me very much of the smell of fig leaves, but that fine a distinction is not officially sanctioned.

C.B.: But the labels on bottles of olive oil are always making comparison to different fruits, and the like, so there must be more to it.

C.C.: That’s the next step, to categorize the oil by the sensation of fresh fruit transmitted through its smell. The permitted choices are: apple, almond, tomato, plantain or artichoke.

C.B.: Are these not just purely subjective categories, though?

C.C.: No. Not really. They derive from the chemistry of a given olive oil, which will share elements in common with the fruit that it smells of, the same as in wine.

C.B.: What’s the next step?

C.C.: We call this first phase the ‘direct analysis’. The second, the ‘indirect’, is the actual tasting of the olive oil in the mouth.

C.B.: What are you looking for there?

C.C.: The main sensations we’re looking for in the mouth are bitterness and pungency.

C.B.: And these are mutually exclusive?

C.C.: No. No. They are distinct flavours to be found in olive oil.

C.B.: Okay. So we take a sip of the olive oil and what happens?

C.C.: We are first looking for the bitter sensation. To find it we let the oil move back along the tongue until it reaches here (indicates the jaw joint on his face), the back part of the tongue on the sides. Then I continue to swallow the oil until it reaches my throat (at which point the natural reaction, even for me, is to cough), and that is where I sense its pungency.

C.B.: But you notice nothing on the tip of the tongue, or anywhere else?

C.C.: No. Nothing. The tongue registers different classes of flavours in different physical locations. Sweetness is perceived on the tip, for example, and acidity on the sides of the tongue near the front. Anybody that tells you that something on the tip of the tongue tastes bitter is fooling himself. These are physical facts.

C.B.: So a sweet oil we would be able to notice when it enters the mouth.

C.C.: No. When we refer to an oil as ‘sweet’, we actually mean that it is lacking, relatively speaking, in the sensory qualities of bitterness and pungency. As the oil moves back along the tongue, the bitterness becomes more intense. Now, after testing for these two, a taster will concentrate on confirming the aromas that he had detected at the beginning.

C.B.: So, there must be some way of distinguishing between degrees of bitterness and pungency.

C.C.: What we do is give the oil a mark between one and ten for what is referred to as its ‘intensity’. This scaling is the hardest thing to learn. In the test, they give you five samples of oil, each with its own characteristics, and you have to state that oil number one has a bitterness of three, number two, a seven, and so on – and get it right.

C.B.: Alright. Now lets take the case of a consumer who goes to the store and buys his bottle of extra virgin olive oil. It’s possible that this person has never really noticed what a plantain or an artichoke smells like. What should this person be doing in order to distinguish between a good and a bad olive oil?

C.C.: The most important quality for this person is freshness. A high quality extra virgin olive oil will have the aroma and flavour of a fresh fruit juice. It will have a certain clean sharpness to it. The person should put the oil in a brandy snifter, which is a good substitute for a tasters’ glass, cover it for few minutes, making sure it is around 28º centigrade (83º F), then take the lid off and breathe the aromas in through the nose. It should smell, I repeat, of freshness and should not transmit any sensation of mustiness, staleness, rancidity, or anything else disagreeable.

C.B.: And next?

C.C.: Then the person should try and appreciate the individual odours. Even if they know nothing of apples or almonds, they should be able to appreciate a certain complexity of aromas. But fundamentally it is a matter of finding an oil that gives the sensation of freshness and has a certain ‘snap’ to it. That is what a good extra virgin olive oil is.

C.B.: Extra virgin olive oils usually have something on the label that relates its acid content. Is that the same thing as the ‘wine-vinegar’ aroma that you mentioned in the list of undesirable characteristics?

C.C.: No. It is an error that is made very often on the part of consumers. But it has nothing to do with it. This refers to the oleic acid content of the olive oil. The maximum permitted by the I.O.O.C. for an oil classified as extra virgin is 0.8%, and this is an amount not detectable in the nose or mouth.

C.B.: What is about then?

C.C.: It is really a matter of freshness. The oleic acid contained in an olive on the tree is approximately zero.

C.B.: So where does this acidity come from?

C.C.: What happens is that the oil molecules in the olive can be broken up, so to say, in the process of harvesting, transporting or pressing and the parts that ‘break off’ and begin to float freely in the liquid are these fatty acids. That is what that number measures.

C.B.: What effect does this have on the quality of the olive?

C.C.: Simply, it’s very difficult for an olive oil containing more than point-five percent acidity to have all the characteristic qualities of a good product that I mentioned before.

C.B.: So, for the consumer, this would be a method of pre-selecting on the store shelf.

C.C.: Exactly. The lower the acidity, the better the chance that you will be buying a good oil. Any extra virgin olive oil processed under optimal conditions will contain 0.5%, or less. It will be from olives harvested with some care and taken to the mill and pressed the same day. Any oil with a higher level is almost certain to suffer from one or another of the undesirable traits we talked about earlier.

C.B.: In the case of an oil produced under a denomination of origin, what is the process through which it becomes classified?

C.C.: The first test is of the molecular contents of the olive oil – the acidity we talked about earlier, the level of peroxides, as well as a few other factors. Secondly, every P.D.O. has its own officially sanctioned panel of tasters (my business, as I said, being their establishment). Samples are taken from distinct lots of oil that have passed the laboratory test and are assigned the label of virgin or extra virgin by the tasting panel.

C.B.: Do you think that this system is worthy of the consumer’s trust?

C.C.: Listen, if a co-op, or other miller, gets caught passing off lesser grades as extra virgin not only do they pay a huge fine but they can expect to have inspectors all over them for the next few years of their lives. In my experience, the vast, vast majority (and I mean approaching 100%) of extra virgin designations given in Spain are completely legitimate.

C.B.: What is your opinion of the “electronic nose”, to be used for olive oil selection, that is being developed in Sevilla at this time?

C.C.: It seems to me to be maybe a little too complicated a task for a series of electronic sensors. Keep in mind that olive oil contains more than five thousand volatile compounds. You can isolate the compounds that produce the aroma of a plantain and compare it to compounds contained in a sample of olive oil, but what you can’t know is how many others actually contribute to that sensation. There has been much interest in the wine industry in the possibility of constructing such a machine, but, as far as I know, they have yet to come up with a satisfactory working system.

C.B.: In recent years in Spain, a fairly large number of P.D.O.’s have appeared. Do you think this is a positive development for the industry, or perhaps an evolution that only serves to confuse the consumer?

C.C.: It depends which consumer you’re talking about. Within Spain, there are probably a large number of people that have a preference for olive oil from certain regions, for whatever reason, and are willing to pay a bit more for it. Outside of the country, it’s probably irrelevant. Few people in Minnesota have even the faintest notion where Cazorla, for example, is or what picual or royal olive oil tastes like. The solution is simple. Exports are marked as ‘Product of Spain’ and domestic sales carry the P.D.O. label.

C.B.: I don’t have any more questions, but is there something you’d like to add?

C.C.: Nothing. Just that anything you need in the way of information or commentary, feel free to call anytime.

C.B.: Thanks, César. You’ll probably hear from me.

Many thanks to Charles Butler Mackay of http://www.olivegazette.blogspot.com/ for allowing us to reproduce this interview.