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One of the perks of working in the test kitchen is having outside experts visit and share their knowledge. This week David Neuman, the CEO of Gaea, a Greek extra-virgin olive oil company, and a certified professional extra-virgin olive oil taster, stopped by to host a blind olive oil tasting.
Olive oil is one of the most used ingredients in the test kitchen. While studies say that two tablespoons a day can be good for your health, assistant editor Lindsay Strand jokingly estimates each editor probably gets more like half a cup a day, thanks to all that recipe testing. But cooking with olive oil every day is very different from tasting it on its own on a regular basis -- Neuman has studied extra-virgin olive oil for seven years and has led hundreds of guided tastings.
For the 42 Burners team, he arranged 11 different types of olive oil in plastic cups, ranging from everyday varieties to the best in the world (according to this year’s olive oil bible “Flos Olei 2018: A Guide to the World of Extra Virgin Olive Oil” -- what Neuman calls the "Michelin guide of olive oil") and including oils with defects. Water and sliced green apples were set out to cleanse the palate between oils.
The setup even piqued Martha’s interest, who stopped by to sample some of the oils and inquire about the lone jelly bean. (It’s for illustrating the connection between the nose and the palate before you begin tasting. If you try the candy with your nose plugged, you won’t express the flavor, but when you open your nose, you can really taste it -- the aroma is that important.)
Neuman demonstrated how to taste olive oil properly: First, cradle the cup with the lid on to warm up the oil and swirl it to express the aromas. Next, remove the lid and sniff, taking the time to consider the aroma. Take a sip, then suck air through the oil, close your mouth, and breath out through your nose -- this way, you aerate the oil retronasally like you do with wine. (Needless to say, there was a lot of funny slurping sounds happening in the test kitchen at this point!) Finally, swallow the oil and assess how it feels in the back of your throat.
As everyone compared notes on the different oils, there were so many nuances to discuss, both good and bad. Fruity could mean green like freshly cut grass or ripe like a banana. Neuman explained that defects go way beyond rancid, which means the oil has spoiled from overexposure to heat or sunlight. It could be musty (editors’ descriptions ranged from malty to a damp basement), fusty (like cat urine), or winey (sour and vinegary). The test kitchen's favorite new vocabulary word? Lampante, which is Italian for "glaring" and means the oil is more suitable for burning in a lamp than for eating.
There was a lot to learn, and it's certain to inform our everyday cooking in the test kitchen and at home. Not only do we know more about the complexity of this kitchen staple, but now we also know what to use in a pinch if there's a blackout this winter -- lampante olive oil!