There’s nothing romantic about tasting 15 great extra virgin olive oils (EVOOs) in a day. It’s brutal — an exhaustive exercise testing our olfactory and gustatory senses for traces of herbs, fruit and plants, and the four essential tastes or feelings: sweetness, astringency, spiciness and bitterness. We were at La jornada de primeros aoves de campaña 2014/15 (introduction to the first EVOOs of 2014/15) in Valencia, Spain, courtesy of Susana Romera and Marta González Eguizábal of Escuela Valenciana de Cata.
Sweetness, in terms of evaluating an EVOO, is anything but the sugary comfort of sweets and pastries. It is best linked to the sweetness of raw almonds and walnuts, shy and whispery. Astringency can best be associated with a good ristretto which makes our mouth pucker and leaves a certain dryness on the roof of the mouth. Spiciness denotes peppery overtones.
Bitterness – that rebel note that defies convention – can be harsh like a hooligan, intrusive in thought and action. Or it could be sensual and sophisticated, giving us a glimpse, but just the slightest, of a nuanced world full of promise. Sensual bitterness unfolds with time: it cannot, it will not be hurried. Quite often, it habours a melding of flavours: the bitter-sweetness of licorice; the bitter-spiciness of a bold, confident hojiblanca, the pride of the Antequera region, in the north of the province of Málaga, Spain.
The sophistry of an extra virgin olive oil which has had time to settle and mature is evident in the way its bitterness is expressed: none of the strident notes of a big band march, all of the jazzy feel of Tony Adamo’s Eleanor Rigby.
In its best moments, bitterness could be what the Cantonese call, ‘the golden taste’, something akin to a compound taste of bitter-sweet which chicory and licorice yield. Of all the four tastes, bitterness is the one that elicits the most debate; the one that prompts more thought and curiosity; and the one that denotes the presence of the healthiest compounds of an excellent EVOO.
Jennifer McLagan, in the Wall Street Journal article Why Bitter Makes Food Better, asks: “Does it matter if we avoid bitter? Absolutely yes! In the kitchen, eschewing bitter is like cooking without salt, or eating without looking. Without bitterness we lose a way to balance sweetness, and by rejecting it we limit our range of flavors. Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity.”
McLagan has more than three decades of experience in the food world as a chef, caterer, food stylist and writer, and is the author of the widely acclaimed books Bones (2005), Fat (2008), Odd Bits (2011), and Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, With Recipes (2014). The excerpt of her latest book reminds me of my fascination with baby bitter gourd which, when grilled with turmeric, oil and salt simply shines with that taste of gold.
“Does it linger, or does it fade in a flat note?” Susana Romera of Escuela Valenciana de Cata prompted. It definitely helped to close my eyes, in an attempt to shut out one extraneous sense to focus better on the trail an EVOO leaves in the mouth and through retro-nasal stimulation, though to be frank, I wonder whether I understand the latter. Focus is probably not the right word; pausing to remember the sight, touch and taste of an artichoke, turnip and arugula leaves is perhaps the better phrase.
What could be the cause of most people’s aversion to bitter? McLagan points out that bitter is often associated with poisons, and babies instinctively spit out anything bitter as a means of survival. Over the ages, we have come to embrace certain bitter foods such as coffee and dark chocolate because of their stimulating effects on our immune system.
Another more recent cause of aversion to bitter is the trend, over four decades, toward sugaring our foods, sauces, meats and snacks by big industry as a convenient substitute for fats — that essential medium of flavour. Fats and oils of all kinds were unfairly demonized because of the misinterpretation of heart-health advice years ago. Don’t Fear The Fat: Experts Question Saturated Fat Guidelines gives a nuanced view of how our irrational fear of fats, including good olive oil, led to the use of sugar as a substitute for flavour. Over the years, I would imagine, our palates were dulled and dumbed into accepting, and even preferring monotone flavors; our home and professional kitchens made sugar the indispensable ingredient, giving it pride of place over the gamut of flavors that nature yields throughout the ebb and flow of seasons.
When I came to Spain more than seven years ago, I had to cleanse my palate, over time, to be receptive to new tastes, smells, colours and textures in food. From one packet of sugar in my coffee, I pared it down to half, a quarter, and then, none. And realized that with an excellent ristretto or cafe con leche with milk from Camprodon, located in the Pyrenees, near the French border, one could come to appreciate the natural fruitiness of the former, and the innate sweetness of the latter.
Cutting out sugar gradually led to a greater awareness of the bitter, spicy, sour realms. The discovery continues, because with each new gustatory door opened, I realize how little I still know about food, drink and artisan olive oils.
By Sue Chien Lee
- Sue’s olive oil tasting session at la jornada de primeros aoves de campaña 2014/15 (introduction to the first EVOOs of 2014/15) in Valencia, Spain, was courtesy of Susana Romera and Marta González Eguizábal of Escuela Valenciana de Cata.
- Sue does boutique gourmet tours in Barcelona, Spain. She can be contacted at: http://about.me/suechien.lee