It was two years ago that I was visiting a small town called Liditz in Pennsylvania that my passion for wine switched to a new liquid gold — olive oil. A beautiful shop called Olio piqued my interest with its 100+ flavours of olive oils that put my inner culinary artist into overdrive.
Fast forward two years and I have just finished an intense one-week course in the beautiful town of Pienza in Tuscany, fully certified as an Olive Oil Sommelier and eligible to take part in tasting panels around the world. Pretty cool. If you’re into that sorta thing.
The course was conducted by the Olive Oil Academy and was touted as a “course for food lovers, olive oil tasters, gourmets, food enthusiasts and professionals”.
I come under the food lover category, with little else to qualify me for taking part. Nonetheless, there I was!
Arrival and GOING BACK TO SCHOOL
Arriving in Pienza by public transport is a story for another day, but let’s just say, I will never make assumptions about the Italian train network again. I arrived at my hotel, the stunning Georgian-style San Gregorio Residence, around 10pm by taxi. The course was all-inclusive, so every participant stayed at the same hotel, which is also where all the classes took place.
I was escorted to my huge three-room suite with a private hot tub. I felt a little giddy at the idea of some me-time and my OWN double bed, having spent the last couple of years travelling and sharing with a friend or my boyfriend. But, sadly that alone time was short-lived as I was up bright and early for breakfast before the course started.
We started promptly at 9am, going round the room to introduce ourselves to the other 11 classmates — something I knew was coming but still wasn’t prepared for. Not unsurprising to me most of the group had a strong background in the olive oil industry. A father and daughter from Turkey owned a huge olive grove, while two brothers from Switzerland had just started up a boutique olive oil business in Ibiza. Others had histories in olive oil dating back generations. Then there was me — who, when asked why I was taking the course, simply responded:
Um, I really like food and olive oil and i just thought it’d be cool?
Our first teacher was Wenceslao Moreda, an impeccably dressed Spaniard with a PhD in chemistry that topped a long-list of enviable qualifications. We were in safe hands.
When the first class started I was whisked back to first year university chemistry classes. My brain was pushed into overload and I was frantically scribbling down notes. This wasn’t your average food appreciation course — but I loved it.
I won’t go into details about the chemical composition of olive oil, the varieties of trees or the deep inner workings of an olive mill. But, it was all in the course.
I picked out some of my favourite nuggets of information and put them into my Things You Never Knew About Olive Oil blog post.
The olive oil tastings
So, I’ll answer your first question now: isn’t it gross to drink oil? Going into the course that question was what I was most nervous about. What if I gagged on the first one and couldn’t go on?! We had over 80 oils to taste over the course of five days. It could have been a disaster.
Before our first actual olive oil tasting, we were handed a selection of small bottles of ‘smells’. These included: ‘rancid’, ‘mould’ and ‘muddy sediment’; things to look out for in defected olive oils.
I wasn’t rushing to unscrew the tops, but it was educational nonetheless. In fact, mould has quite a pleasant, freshly-cooked-bread smell. Who knew!
Once we started tasting, to my surpise, it was actually very satisfying. When you’re doing it for a purpose and your brain is focused on sensory analysis (and not making a fool of yourself in front of the class!), the gross factor completely vanished. Olive oil doesn’t have that greasy texture you expect (in fact, greasiness is considered a defect in olive oil) and the aromas and tastes you get from it are quite surprising and pleasant.
We tasted four oils in the first round, and they ranged from mild to cough-inducingly pungent.
Was it green or ripe? How bitter is it? What level of pungency can you feel? Can you smell or taste any defects?
For anyone that hasn’t done a sensory analysis task before, it is really quite eye-opening. Your brain is forced to focus on things it had previously taken for granted, and you leave with a greater appreciation not only for olive oils but everything you consume (I sniff everything now!).
Each day, classes ran from 9am-1pm (although we were working on Italian time, so this varied considerably). Bar the first day, the afternoons were cram-packed with cultural and culinary experiences in the surrounding region. Most of these included wine.
We visited olive mills in various sizes to see the production first-hand and try fresh-off-the-press oils. We met with some fabulous local wine makers, and may have snuck off a few times for some mid-afternoon vinos in the local taverns in between activities.
Medieval villages, famous churches and a house that featured in the opening scene of Gladiator were all on the agenda. So much for some alone time in that hot tub! We were go-go-go.
The food. Ohhh, the food. The breakfasts and lunches were always held at the hotel, and the help-yourself buffet was a daily highlight. From fresh cooked pasta dishes to the juiciest of tomato salads, I was that person that wasn’t afraid to go back for seconds, thirds… and occasionally a fourth.
In the evenings, we were never quite sure what we would be eating. One evening it was a Spanish-style light dinner of gourmet hams and three-year matured cheeses with free-flowing wine. The next it was a five-course Italian extravaganza that left us regretting having consumed anything else that day.
While the quantities were inconsistent, the quality was fantastic. But, of course, I would expect nothing less from the Italians.
Who is this course for?
Are you thinking about becoming an olive oil sommelier? As an avid learner of anything, I found every aspect of this course fascinating, even when we were learning about multi-million dollar machinery that I will never ever use, let alone need to know about in so much detail. However, if you’re more interested in food pairing (although this was covered) than organic chemistry, then you may be disappointed.
But, if you own a small or large olive grove, or aspire to, then you will leave feeling wide-eyed and ready to take on the olive oil world.
The courses are usually run twice a year. You can find out more here.