First I held my glass up to the light and looked for impurities, then I swished it around and breathed deeply to ascertain aroma, and finally poured the contents into my mouth to feel the liquid coat my tongue. But this was no wine tasting — it was a convivial atmosphere full of dedicated producers and sublime food: my first olive oil tasting.
Production of olive oil is similar all over the Mediterranean and new world. Take in a tour to gain an appreciation for the method, but the real trick is to get as close as you can to the source for highest quality. Which is a perfect excuse to travel and enjoy these amazing spots:
The Peloponnese region has been making olive oil according to tradition for 3,000 years. Their harvest, which happens early in the season, yields a feisty, young oil known for its grassy and herbaceous flavors with a peppery finish. You can venture to the groves here, but more so than anywhere else, you’ll find amazing bottles on every table in the country. I paid homage from the islands, where I watched the sun illuminate a glistening dish of oil at the Canaves Oia Hotel’s poolside restaurant in Santorini. canaves.com
For more mature, earthy olive oils, head to Andalucía, Spain. Spanish olive oils are like a matador: grand, and ready to stand up to strong flavors. Venture into one of the many tapas bars around the Barrio Santa Cruz near the cathedral and make sure to get a dish of aceitunas (olives) or boquerones (anchovies) served in Spain’s famous oil.
Reminiscent of the upset competition win of the vineyard Chateau Montelena in California in the Judgment of Paris, American oils are quickly garnering a solid reputation and winning worldwide competitions themselves. Take a break from wine tasting in Napa and head over to McEvoy Ranch for a tour of the orchards. It’s definitely worth the time if you can stay for lunch. Make sure to try their “traditional blend” oil, made from six varietals of olives.
In the rolling hills of Tuscany, you’ll find what I consider the best olive oil in the world. At a village so small I’m not even sure it had a name, I met my guide in late October when they start to press the olives that are to become their signature green oil. You can see the traditional stone method of oil extraction and some of the modern machinery used today. And the best part — you taste the oil as it comes straight off the press! Set up your Tuscan Olive Oil Press Tour with Le Baccanti and ask for Filippo. www.lebaccanti.com
Eat where the locals shop
My favorite place to stock up is the Central Market in Florence, Italy. You know you’re onto something when you’re surrounded with locals doing their shopping and busy workers taking a moment to enjoy a tripe sandwich.
The Mediterranean boasts some of the most magnificent islands in the world, all with their own unique character. Visit Sicily and Sardinia for a taste of Southern Italian style, the exquisite Greek Isles for vistas unlike any in the world, and Majorca and Minorca of Spain for charming seaside villages and traditions.
Perfect your tasting technique
The best way to taste olive oil is straight. Pour it into a glass, cover the opening with one hand, and warm it from beneath with the other. Swirl it around and then take your hand away to release the aroma. You’re looking for a bouquet of grasses, herbs, fruits, and of course, olives.
Shutterstock.com/ Christos Drazos/ McEvoy Ranch