Happy New Year, olive oil lovers!
Recently I was able to learn a bit more about the EVOO selection process via Hayley Stevens, Saratoga Olive Oil Co.'s "secret weapon" for Varietal tastings.
Hayley, the current owner of Saratoga Tea & Honey, has long been involved with the EVOO selection process and was kind enough to answer some questions for me...
A: How long have you been doing the varietal tastings for SOOC and how you started being involved with the process?
H: I started working at SOOC in 2011. Clint and Barbara sent me to do an olive oil tasting course held by ONAOO Organizzazione Nazionale Assagiatori Olio d'Oliva - a Ligurian olive oil tasting organization that teaches and tests olive oil tasting abilities. I had some previous experience with olive harvesting and tasting from my schooling and cooking experiences in Italy and Croatia, but this helped launch a more focused interest learning about olive oil production and dégustation. This experience that Clint and Barbara offered me was the catalyst to the following years of pursuing more knowledge. I went on to enroll in Savantes, an organization for producers, professionals and enthusiasts who want to learn about everything from the oil droplet to the global olive oil industry. In this course, I succeeded at passing the exam to Associate Savantes status, a title that I am honored to carry. I tested three times into Associate Savante status and still, the highest score category of Savante, I have yet to reach. In 2015 and 2016, I won the Olive Oil Tasting Championship, administered by Savantes and held in Chicago for industry professionals at the North American Olive Oil Association's annual conference.
A: What are the qualities/traits you notice about the oils when you're tasting them (if certain things stand out more than others, or even if certain notes might be more difficult to detect)? How you decide on the EVOO offerings you think should be chosen for sale?
H: Often at Saratoga Olive Olive Oil Company we are tasting mono-varietal extra virgin olive oil. We are tasting to provide the customer a spectrum of creamy mild oils through to the more robust and peppery. Within this spectrum I am looking for flavor complexities and experiences that could be fruity, vegetal, herbaceousness, nuttiness, persistence, pepperiness and overall mouth feel. And then, the very best oils take you on a flavor journey through it all. SOOC seeks to provide the customer not only with the freshest olive fruit juice, but the best representatives of the categories. I am tasting for the customer. Most people are not drinking the oil, as we do, but are employing it in their kitchens, and we are always conscious about how and where we would incorporate an oil, based on flavor notes, into cooking and raw preparations. While most of the oils I taste are not defective, I sort through a great many that do not have the same interest or luster as the 'chosen ones'.
A: Are there are certain notes you, yourself, prefer over others for use? Anything else you feel inclined to share?
H: Beyond being textbook analytical, I am a very emotional taster. I associate smells and flavors with past experiences and sometimes, abstract ideas. This has helped me in my success at tasting competitions. I might taste an oil that reminds me of an olive oil I poached artichokes in three years ago or I might smell an oil and associate the nose with smells walking through my grandfathers garden. My emotional response to the oil and the questions it makes me pose myself, are important keys in determining what the olive is. This emotional memory connected to my sensory experience helps me draw commonalities, write flavor descriptions, and record experiences for future tastings. I don't have preference to any specific flavors - my appreciation is for an extra virgin olive oil that is made well, stored well and has a story to tell.
Chef Alyssa Dion