Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tasting Spanish Olive Oil at The Bazaar: All the Things I Never Knew

Did you know that Spain is the largest olive oil producer in the world? Spain produces 52% of the worldwide olive oil while Italy produces 21%. There are 2.5 million hectares of olive trees in Spain. That's about as big as the state of Massachusetts!

I was recently invited to a tasting of olive oils from Spain led by Alfonso Fernandez Lopez from the LA trade commissioner of Spain. Different farmers from Spain have put together their resources for this event, where I learned so much about olive oils. We tasted four olive oils and proceeded to partake in a multi-course lunch prepared by the staff of Jose Andres' The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel, with each course centered around olive oil.

I have an open bottle of olive oil in my pantry that's probably been there for months. Little did I know that an open bottle of olive oil will only maintain its full aroma and flavor for 15 days!

Tasting olive oil turns out to be as rigorous as tasting wines and there are many varietals with distinct characteristics.

Alfonso Lopez guides us through the tasting


When you taste, you first decide on the intensity of the aroma. How close must your nose be to the glass to smell the aroma? Tasting is usually done in a colored glass since the color shouldn't affect the tasting notes, but we just used regular glasses for this event.
Before tasting, the glass should be covered so the aroma doesn't escape. The bottom of the glass needs to be warmed by rubbing your palm around the bottom (the ideal tasting temperature is 28 degree Celsius).

We each had a small piece of apple between tastes to cleanse our palate.

We tasted the four main varietals of olive oil in Spain (there are 70 varieties total in Spain and 180 worldwide):
  1. Arbequina, from the northeast of Spain (e.g. Catalonia) and is now grown all over the world. Tasting notes: light to medium, aroma of ripe fruit like green apple and banana. A little spicy. Sweet (no bitterness) and velvety (no astringency). This varietal is not good for cooking as it will be overwhelmed, but is instead good for finishing touches. It's fragile and won't keep long (bitter varietals will keep longer).
  2. Hojiblanca, from the south of Spain (e.g. Malaga, Granada). Tasting notes: medium to intense. Reminiscent of grass, green almonds, and green fruits like kiwi. This varietal is bitter and hence will keep longer. It is spicy and pepperish, thus good for dishes that need pepper.
  3. Cornicabra ("horn of goat"), from central Spain. Tasting notes: medium intensity, ripe apple. This has more astringency than the previous, and is a little bitter and pepperish.
  4. Picual. This is the largest varietal and is grown all over Spain. Tasting notes: medium to intense. Notes of green tomato and grass. This varietal is very bitter, pepperish, and astringent (read: keeps long and will be good for bold dishes).

Spanish Olive Oil Tasting at The Bazaar
The tasting was followed by a multi-course lunch prepared by the staff of Jose Andres' The Bazaar. The purpose of this lunch was to showcase how olive oils can be used in cooking and what types of olive oils would be best for certain types of food. The lunch started naturally with Jose's Olive Spheres, a show of the molecular gastronomy techniques heavily employed at The Bazaar.
Olive Oil Spheres

Traditional Gordal Green Olive garnished with citrus.
It certainly adds to the experience knowing the types of olives one is eating. There was a bowl of olives for us to munch on. In this bowl, the small brown ones are arbequina olives and the pitted green ones were manzanilla olives, which are typically used for table olives.

Moving on to the prepared food, we started with the Gazpacho Estilo Algeciras (Traditional Gazpacho)
Featuring Cornicabra Olive Oil

As we had learned before, the cornicabra holds its flavors well against the spicy gazpacho.

Not Your Every Day Caprese (Cherry tomatoes, liquid mozzarella)
Featuring Hojiblanca Olive Oil
I loved bursting open the liquid mozzarella in my mouth. The creamy liquid mozzarella again showcases their molecular gastronomy techniques, paired with sweet and juicy cherry tomatoes. The peppery hojiblanca adds the kick needed in the pesto sauce.

Azzoz Negro (Black rice, baby squid, garlic aioli)
Featuring Hojiblanca Olive Oil
Squid Ink Risotto
As you can see, the bitter and peppery hojiblanca is good for many dishes as it can stand its own in bold dishes. This was a great dish, albeit a little salty. The hojiblanca is probably the most sold and used in cooking.

Braised Wagyu Beef Cheeks with California citrus
Featuring Arbequina Olive Oil
The arbequina is the most subtle and fragile among the four varieties we tasted. Here it is paired with tender wagyu beef cheeks that had been braised for hours, and a delicate citrus sauce.

The dessert for this lunch can be no other than olive oil cakes.
Olive Oil Cake
Caramel Rosemary Picual Olive Oil Cakes with Picual olive oil ice cream
Featuring Picual Olive Oil

The picual is good for things like baking because of its intensity. Both the flavor and aroma is still there even in the ice cream. 
This dessert was so good many of us eagerly jumped on the seconds they brought out. We loved the flavor of the caramel rosemary and the ice cream cuts the richness of the moist cakes very nicely.

Beyond the excellent meal, I came home with a lot more knowledge about olive oils than I could possibly have imagined. I now know the open bottle in my pantry is probably a goner, and I'll be looking closely at the varietals on printed labels next time I buy a new bottle.


Oh, and since all swag must be disclosed: We also took home a bag filled with a bottle of olive oil (from Spain, of course), a t-shirt, and a couple of oven mitts!


Banana Wonder

I live and breath olive oil. Wish I could have come to this event. BTW, Greece is the #3 producer.

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