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Extra Virgin Appreciation 101: How to really savour olive oil

Bill Bougourd tastes oil at The Olive Pit. While a layman might not detect anything special, an educated palate can taste almost as many flavours as a wine sommelier.

Charla Jones/Charla Jones/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Admittedly, drinking a glass of yellow grease does not sound like the most gourmet of experiences. But for foodies such as Torontonian Elaine Wong, it's the only way to unmask the aromas and undertones of what many consider a nondescript product: olive oil.

On a recent Saturday at The Olive Pit Toronto, Ms. Wong is sampling the first of several oils. With the thick, viscous liquid still in her mouth, she pauses, her brow furrowing with concentration. She swallows, then remarks: "It has a strong bitterness that I can feel at the back of my throat."

Olive-oil tastings are the latest trend for epicureans seeking out the complex and new. For a casual experience, customers can walk into select food shops, chat with the resident olive expert and then try a variety of oils. Some stores even offer extended group classes and monthly workshops.

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As with wine tastings, the experience is ritualized in stages. True connoisseurs serve their product in glasses, rather than on vegetables or bread. Food can distract from the oil's complexity, explains Bill Bougourd, who is running the tasting for Ms. Wong and other customers. At The Olive Pit, they serve in small plastic cups, but they also provide bread bites for customers who can't stomach drinking the oil straight. Some people find it "too intense and oily," Mr. Bougourd says.

Ms. Wong plunges her nose into the plastic cup and smells deeply. Then she "slurps the oil," as she puts it, while sucking in air. The oxygen creates a "sort of mayonnaise emulsion," according to the tasting notes provided by California-based Apollo Olive Oil. Since oil and water (saliva) don't naturally mix, adding air to the mixture allows it to have more contact with the taste buds, creating a stronger taste.

"You want the air to go over the oil, hit the back of the throat and up through the nose," says Gerry Shikatani, a freelance culinary critic based in Peterborough, Ont., who also runs tastings at stores, restaurants and private parties. "It's what's called a retro-nasal effect."

The tasting experience can be irritating, difficult or spicy. Olives are naturally a slightly bitter fruit, a sensation that is experienced after a delay, explains Ms. Wong, who works in international development and is such an olive-oil fan that she visits specialty stores around the world to stock up. With a more pungent oil, the aftertaste - a peppery kick - can tickle the back of the throat, Mr. Shikatani says. First-timers "might end up coughing," he warns. Some producers even jokingly classify their extra virgin oils as one-, two- or three-cough oils, according to how much you choke when trying a sip.

While a layman might not detect anything special, an educated palate can taste almost as many flavours as a master sommelier riffing on wine. According to the tip sheets printed off the Web that Ms. Wong has brought to the tasting, olive oils can have flavours rarely associated with olives, such as "tobacco leaf, green banana, green tomato, green tea, sorrel, salad leaves, shallot, fig leaves, hay, chili peppers, yeast, cucumber, mint and artichoke." If it tastes of caramel or toffee, the oil has been burned during production. Any taste of fetid milk, bacon, salami, blue cheese or baby vomit is also a bad sign, and means the oil has a defect.

The taste of the oil depends on the growing region, olive type, soil, blend, how it was produced and even whether the fruit was facing sun, explains Toronto food writer Malcolm Jolley. Californian oils tend to be softer and sweeter. Mediterraneans are more aromatic and grassy. Spain is particularly famous for its quality and variety of olive oils, he adds.

The price of an oil varies greatly, from $10 to nearly $200 a litre. But the cheaper ones aren't necessarily a bargain: According to a 2007 study by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, about 33 per cent of olive oils are contaminated with other ingredients. They might claim to be 100 per cent pure, but they have been mixed with sunflower, canola, olive-pomace (a cheap grade made from the remnants of the fruit) or another oil.

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Educating the palate can protect a foodie from being duped. In her workshops, Claudia Pharand, co-owner of the Montreal chain Olive & Olives, teaches students to pick out the mixed oils - what she calls "fake" products. A pure extra virgin has a high content of monounsaturated fats, and it meets the oleic acid content "as established by the International Olive Oil Council," she says. "Fake" oils likely won't have as many antioxidants or as much vitamin E. The difference can be revelatory.

"People come back to me and say, 'Oh my goodness; I've been buying this and I was completely deceived.'"

Of course, once you've tasted the best, it's hard to return to the run-of-the-mill supermarket variety, says Louise Blondeau, who works in alumni relations at McGill University. Before she took a 90-minute class with Ms. Pharand, she used to buy a single bottle from the grocery store and use it for all her culinary needs. Today she buys about six different ones and varies them according to the dish she's making.

"Once I learned about the richness and complexities of oil, I started to buy the more expensive kinds," Ms. Blondeau says. "I couldn't go back."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Where to taste olive oil

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Toronto The Cheese Boutique. 416-762-6292

Montreal Olive and Olives. 514-526-8989

Vancouver Meinhardt Fine Foods. 604-732-4405

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