"Every year, a team of expert tasters gathers around a table at Fortnum & Mason to perform an important ritual – the tasting and selection of the new harvest of olive oil." To my amazement, I was kindly asked to join in. The process sounded intriguing so armed with a dose of courage I made my way to Fortnum & Mason's crypt.
I was told, "As with every other comestible that changes with the seasons, a crop of olive oil can taste entirely different from one year to the next, so a thorough tasting is essential to ensure that this year’s selection is the best that is available. This year more than 100 oils have been tasted by Fortnum’s savoury grocery buyer, Sam Rosen-Nash, some of Fortnum & Mason’s finest suppliers and a team of helpers."Olive Oil is best tasted at ambient temperature which is around 28C so before tasting you warm your sample with one hand and cover it with the other to trap the smell in. Good oil should smell fresh, green and vegetable like.
At this stage my neighbour, a vicar and friend of one of the buyer, and I were feeling equally incomfortable, beside us two, there was only another layman, a journalist, the rest of the table were all professionally linked to Olive Oil. But it was surprisingly easy to detect the various olfactory notes
Now for the flavour, the most common taste in young oils is the grassiness, sweet almond in more mature oils. No oil is the same and there is a wide range of flavours from sweet to very bitter, all sorts of flavours come through things like lemons, artichoke, aniseed, melons even farmyard and tobacco. The traditional taste made from fully mature olives is soft and almondy.
We tasted 15 samples, I do not envy the buyer's job after about 10 samples, my sense of taste was shot to pieces.
However the most surprising element, for me, came on swallowing, I would dare you to try this at home. It is rather amazing, swirl and swallow a spoon of olive oil. It leaves a peppery taste in your throat sometimes so strong that it makes you cough.