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We hear this quite a bit from people. It often takes a while before they tell us, since they know how enthusiastic we are about extra virgin olive oil. But eventually the elephant in the room gets addressed when we ask why they don’t buy it. Almost always there’s been an experience where they tasted some, maybe made salad dressing from that special bottle kept safe in the back of the pantry (or larder if you’re a Brit), gathering dust. And it tasted horrible.

Olives are stone fruit, and their juice, the extra virgin olive oil, goes off. Cherries and apricots are other stone fruit, and they wouldn’t taste great after slowly decomposing! Or imagine a piece of cheese you left uncovered in the fridge, and the way it slowly changes colour, dries out, and tastes rancid. This happens to nuts too. I thought I didn’t like walnuts for years, but then went on a cookery course one day where we used new season walnuts. It took some persuading, but eventually I gave in and was amazed – they have a totally different flavour. Now I drive my husband crazy, whenever we drive past a walnut grove, we have to stop so I can buy some.

Olive oil flavour descriptors

You can’t tell what olive oil will taste like from the appearance – the colour may change a little, but extra virgin olive oil can be such a wide variety of colours that that probably won’t help. So your next clue may be that it smells a bit musty. Except you probably won’t sniff it. Because that would be weird. I mean, you might sniff milk if it’s near the best before date, but oil doesn’t go off does it?

So the dressing will get made, and poured over the delicious (fresh) salad you’ve prepared, and then “Eeeuuugh”. You’ll think it tastes awful. You’ll think you don’t like olive oil. And you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about. Maybe it is really healthy, but you’ll just have a glass of wine to wash away the taste and forget all about it. Wine’s good for you too, right?

Well I can pretty much guarantee that what happened was that the oil was rancid. So the next time you’re at a farmer’s market, or a nice deli, see if you can find some extra virgin olive oil. Ask where it’s from, and when the olives were harvested and pressed. Ask if you can taste it. Don’t freak out if they offer you some to try neat, without bread, it’s not like taking a sip of vegetable oil! Have a good sniff first – you’re missing out if you don’t – fresh extra virgin olive oil has some amazing aromas. It might be like fresh cut grass. And the flavours can be so varied, as I mentioned previously.

There’s a whole vocabulary around extra virgin olive oil tasting, just like wine. If you’re interested, take a look at this chart of descriptors from Australian olive oil judge Richard Gawal. But the oil has to be fresh. It’ll be best within 12 months of harvest, but most have a best before date of two years. So go and buy some fresh oil, and get tasting! FFx