Eataly, the Italian chain which opened its doors in Dubai in December 2013, is a ‘restaurant – cafe – grocery store – kitchen supply – emporium of all things Italian’. Sounds like a lot? It is. But don’t worry, there’s an information desk inside to help you find your way around if you get overwhelmed and find yourself wanting to go everywhere at once.
I have enjoyed visiting Eataly many times, just wandering around and tasting my way through. Last week, though, I went with an agenda. I was meeting Eataly’s regional food and beverage buyer, Stephanie Lerouge, for a lesson in olive oil tasting.
Stephanie, who used to live and work in Italy in the food industry, told me that she had always been very impressed by how passionate the olive oil suppliers she dealt with were. It made her want to learn more about olive oil and share her knowledge with the general public. The approximately 40 extra virgin olive oils available in Eataly are carefully selected to showcase the different regions in Italy and include descriptions of what you can expect when you open a bottle. Eataly goes one step further, and if you are unsure about which bottle to buy you can ask a member of staff in the olive oil section if you can do a tasting. Personally, I have never tried asking a member of Eataly’s staff to taste the olive oil before buying it because I never realized it was something which they offered. Now that I know it’s possible, I will take them up on it some time.
For the tasting, Stephanie brought out two bottles of extra virgin olive oil which she chose because she felt they were both good for salads but also had very different characteristics. One was a bottle of ROI (AED 75 for 500ml) from Liguria in Northern Italy, the other was a bottle of Planeta (AED 121 for 500ml) from Sicilia in Southern Italy.
There are five important steps to tasting an olive oil.
1. Pour a small amount of olive oil (around 1 tablespoon) into a small tapered glass. Often tastings are done in small blue tapered glasses which mask the color of the olive oil because, despite what you might have heard, the color of an olive oil has no bearing on the quality of the product. However for this tasting, we used small clear tapered cups.
2. Hold the glass in one hand and use your other hand to cover the glass while while swirling the oil for 30-60 seconds. This warms up the oil and allows it to release its aroma. Smell is an important component of taste.
3. Lift your hand slightly to uncover the glass and breathe in the aroma. Think about whether the aroma is delicate, strong, fruity, herbaceous.
4. Slurp the oil. This is done by sipping a small amount of oil into your mouth and then slightly parting your lips to ‘sip’ some air as well. Don’t be shy, when done correctly you will make a slurping noise. Slurping emulsifies the oil with the air and helps to spread it throughout your mouth.
5. Allow the oil to coat the inside of your mouth and tongue before swallowing it. Pay attention to whether it leaves a stinging peppery sensation at the back of your throat (this is a desirable trait because it is a sign that the oil contains polyphenol antioxodants). Some olive oil aficianados refer to a one, two or three cough oil. It is customary to drink some water or eat a piece of bread between oils.
Anything which reminds you of fruits, vegetables or spices is generally a good sign in an olive oil. Signs of a bad olive oil include tastes which are metallic, earthy, muddy, woody, moldy, winey, vinegary, fermented or rancid.
I tried this with the ROI (Northern Italy) and the Planeta (Southern Italy). The ROI was mild and soft and reminded me of green grass with a hint of spice at the end. Stephanie mentioned the flavor of artichoke, which I think I kind of tasted. It was a very friendly oil, the type of you could give someone as a gift and be pretty sure they would like it too. In stark contrast, the Planeta was robust, fruity, very velvety on the tongue, and much spicier at the end (for me, it was a four-cough olive oil). It was bold and would definitely make itself known when poured onto a salad.
When I asked Stephanie which of the two oils was considered better, she said that it depends entirely on personal taste. Eataly chooses very good olive oils which all have different characteristics and it’s upto the individual which qualities they prefer. Some prefer robust and peppery while others prefer delicate and grassy. Like wine, different qualities will appeal to different people.
After the tasting, I hung around trying to decide which olive oil I wanted to buy to bring home with me. I went with a Southern Italian oil, Lorenzo No 3 (AED 125). I couldn’t wait to get it home to do a taste test. Bitter, fruity, robust, spicy. And it only made me cough 3 times.
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