How to Become an Olive Oil Taster

17 January 2017 Published in Cibo
Indra Galbo of Gambero Rosso, Rome Indra Galbo of Gambero Rosso, Rome

We've all done a spot of wine tasting in Italy, but what about olive oil tasting? I've enjoyed participating in Autumn tasting sessions in Monte Amiata and most recently Viterbo but was curious to find out more, as well as where the reputation of Italian extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO if you prefer, is heading. This led me to speak with Indra Galbo, a qualified expert, docente at Gambero Rosso and collaborator of both their prestigious restaurant and olive oil guides.

1. How do you become an olive oil taster?

When I started my career at Gambero Rosso I first approached the world of olive oil by working for the first edition of the 'Oli d'Italia' guide. Since then, thanks to the company, I started to attend courses to become a professional taster. Tasting and writing are my passions and luckily I managed to also make them my job.

2. Is this something you always wanted to do, or did it happen by chance?

It was a combination of both factors. While attending the faculty of Political Science I began to collaborate with various television and newspaper newsrooms as becoming a journalist had been my greatest ambition since childhood. But my perspective changed after a good chat with Simone who is one of my best friends but also a chef and an influential research and development expert in the food sector. He told me: "Indra you like writing and you're a curious taster. Why don't you do the Gambero Rosso's Master and try to turn this your interest into your career?" So in late 2009 I began my adventure. Extra virgin olive oil sensory analysis has now become a mission for me. A mission made up of a continuous upgrading of skills, knowledge of products, olive oil mills and agricultural techniques.

3. What does your work involve at Gambero Rosso?

I've worked at the Gambero Rosso since 2010 and, in addition to collaborating for the restaurant guides and many other publishing products, my work is always focused on olive oil. The 'Oli d'Italia' guide (I'm the coordinator of the tastings) is without doubt the editorial product which engages me the most, but I love teaching, too. In fact I'm the teacher for all the courses and masters that Gambero Rosso organizes in Italy and in collaboration with various universities. Explaining and communicating extra virgin olive oil is a true mission for me and it is the side of my work which has always engaged me the most. My parents are both teachers, I may have taken something from them.

4. What olive oil related events would you advise a visitor to Italy to seek out?

Events that involve more producers are definitely SOL Agrifood in Verona, Olio Capitale in Trieste and TUTTOFOOD in Milan. Then, there are other events that now manage to draw more and more attention to olive oil such as Domina IOOC in Palermo, the event linked to the presentation of Flos Olei guide in Rome and, of course, the one organized every year by Gambero Rosso for Oli d'Italia guide with the best Italian producers.

5. Do you have a favourite extra virgin olive oil?

No, I don't. I'm fascinated by the many peculiarities that local areas can offer. Italy with its 500 varieties of olives is like a playground for tasters. Choosing a favorite oil means putting a limit on our hedonistic pleasure and on the right pairing with the dishes. Why do it?

Indra Galbo of Gambero Rosso

In Japan, Italian cuisine now features in more than 1/3 of the meals consumed in restaurants

6. What are the largest markets abroad for Italian Dop olive oil?

The target market is always United States, while in Europe the Germans are historical and loyal buyers of our gourmet products. Certainly Japan is becoming an interesting outcome since Italian cuisine now features in more than 1/3 of the meals consumed in restaurants, especially by young people. However, Italy does not have to worry about exporting only the product, but also the skills that are used to make olive oil. In Middle Eastern countries, as well as in those in North Africa, there is a need to produce quality olive oil and the Italians can be the undisputed masters of this process.

7. How is Italian dop olive oil marketed abroad? What needs to change?

PDO certification theoretically guarantees the consumer a quality product thanks to stricter production rules compared with normal extra virgin olive oil. So my advice is to always spend a little more and choose a certified product. What we really need is to overcome the product category of "extra virgin" and seek oils that professionals call "premium." These oils already exist, but are classified simply as extra virgin, while in fact they are very low in acidity and peroxide values and high in biophenols. We should go further and create the new vanguard of olive oil in the world.

8. Is it a worry that the supermarket shelves are now full of EU blend olive oils?

The problem is not about EU blends. Blend of EU olives also means, for exemple, combining the best Spanish Picual with the best Tuscan Frantoio: probably a super olive oil! The problem is about the market category. In the classification "extra virgin" you can find any kind of product, both exquisite oils and oils at the limits of being defective. We need a new category that identifies the quality olive oils through stricter chemical parameters and through sensory analysis.

9. How is TTIP viewed by Italian olive oil producers, both big and small?

282 out of 1315 PDO and PGI certified European products are Italian. These numbers help to make Italy the leader of the continental agri-food sector. In a country like Italy, TTIP would give carte blanche to the overwhelming power of multinationals resulting in unbridled free-market approach where profit matters more than anything else, even quality. Fortunately, France recently expressed its opposition to this agreement theatening indefinitely the negotiating table as TTIP can pass only with the unanimous vote of all member countries. Here in Italy we have to do a few simple things: promote our immense varietal heritage through policies which support the agricultural sector, take more initiatives regarding the internationalization of companies and fight tough with those who imitate our food excellences.

Oli d'Italia 2016 del Gambero Rosso
The extra virgin olive oils which achieved a mark of above 90/100 in the 2016 edition of the Gambero Rosso Guide - Le Tre Foglie