Last week members of the Organizzazione Nazionale Assaggiatori Olio di Oliva (ONAOO - National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters) gathered in San Francisco to conduct classes and exams for olive oil industry professionals. Founded in Imperia, Italy in 1983, the ONAOO is a group of respected experts whose goal is to protect and enhance the technical and cultural art of tasting olive oil.
Hayley Stevens Miller, manager of Saratoga Olive Oil Co. in Saratoga Springs, NY, attended the course, learning about production of olive oil, potential sources of defects in oil, and methods for identifying defects through smell and taste. The two-day, 18-student sensory aptitude course detailed chemical components related to an oil’s ability to be constituted as extra virgin as well as the differences between high quality and poor quality oils. The process - were the olives picked directly from the tree or were they gathered from the ground? Were the oils rushed to press or piled and left to sit? - affects the taste and quality of an oil.
The course allowed Hayley the opportunity to be immersed in tasting of poor quality oil. She learned key words - rancidity, fusty, grubby - as well as theory - for example, an oil tastes fusty because it used olives that were improperly transported to production and then begins to ferment. The ONAOO professors lined up over a dozen oils with varying defects for students to taste, providing Hayley a chance to differentiate the oils' defects. “People are used to that fusty smell. They describe it as ‘olivey,’” said Hayley of mass-produced grocery store olive oils. The reason for these defective oils derives primarily from the fact that these oils are produced by big companies desiring a high yield, not a high quality.
The class provided a truly experiential education in which Hayley and other participants learned through tasting. Requiring an application of knowledge, the culminating exam challenged students to identify specific defects in four separate exam trials. In three of the trials, students identified defects in an oil based on smell, then place the oil back in order. In the fourth and final trial, students applied the same process to bitterness.
Hayley successfully navigated tasting and identifying defects, earning the ONAOO’s Sensory Aptitude Certificate. Prior to this class, only one individual in the United States had passed and earned the same award. With this certificate, Hayley ranks among the most prominent olive oil tasters in the country. Saratoga Olive Oil Co. is extremely proud of Hayley’s accomplishment and eager for her to share her knowledge with the rest of our staff.