Monocultivar olive oil, or, why are olives different?

In the midst of the pandemic, I scratch my travel itch vicariously, enjoying photographic “memories” that pop up in the various apps that store my photos. A trip to New York City popped up this weekend, and reminded me that I intended to create a post about that trip, the hunt for great olives in the city, and an impromptu tasting of monocultivar/monovarietal olive oils. I’ll save the story about wandering around the city tasting olives for a later date, but I did want write more about monocultivar oils.

A monovarietal/monocultivar oil made from Coratina olives, sourced from the Puglia region of Italy. My tasting notes from this oil mention that it has an intense, peppery flavor, and a finish that tickles the throat and even burns a bit when swallowed.

My first introduction to monocultivar oils was on that trip to New York City. I wandered into Eataly, in search of some good olives and other delicious items to bring home as afternoon snacks to share with our hosts in the city. The store happened to be doing a tasting of a variety of olive oils, so I stopped by to taste a few. All my previous experiences with olive oil had been what I purchased in the grocery store, which meant generally a blend, sometimes labeled “Mediterranean” or with the origin listed as Spain or Italy, but no mention of the type of olive used. When traveling, or in restaurants, I had been served oils that I found delicious, but I didn’t have a sense of where they came from or what made them different from what I found on the grocery shelves. 

The first oil I tasted was made from Coratina olives, in the Puglia region of Italy, and was wildly different from anything I had tasted before. As instructed, I sipped a small amount of oil from the offered cup, and pulled air through my lips to aerate the oil and experience all the flavors. The oil had a strong peppery flavor, and irritated my throat when I swallowed, causing me to cough a bit. The woman running the tasting explained that the coughing is due to a compound present in fresh olive oil, and that professional tasters may include notes about whether a particular oil is a one-cough, two-cough, or three-cough oil. (I’ll write more about the chemistry of olives later, but for those that need their curiosity satiated now, here is a good article on the connection between olive oil, coughing, and ibuprofen.) It might be a sought after flavor by some olive oil judges, but it was definitely too much for me.

Monocultivar olive oil made from Taggiasca olives. My tasting notes from this oil indicate that it is very buttery, smooth, and has a mild flavor. Note that these pictures are from July 2017, so this oil was quite fresh (harvested in winter 2016/2017) at the time. If you can, find oils that have a harvest date (preferable) or at least a best-before date. That will let you know that the oil is close to the taste intended by the people that pressed the olives, and you can pick olive oils you enjoy consuming.

We moved on to a much milder Taggiasca oil, with a smooth and buttery flavor. It was very nice, but not distinctive enough for me to justify the fairly high prices for a single bottle. The third oil I tasted was another Coratina, but this one made me feel like Goldilocks — it was just right. It was green and peppery, but without the throat burn from the first oil, and far more interesting than the mild Taggiasca oil. The final oil I tried was a Moresca monocultivar harvested near the town of Noto, on the island of Sicily, in Italy. It had almost a nutty flavor, as well as the distinctive green flavor that I have come to love in fresh oil. It was good, but it didn’t compare to my favorite Coratina oil of the day.

My second Coratina oil of the day. This one also had a distinct green and peppery flavor, but was much milder than the first one I tried. This ended up being my favorite, and I later purchased a bottle to keep at home as a finishing oil to pour over veggies and enhance soups.

So what makes these oils so distinctive? While there are some differences in the technique used to produce oil, the process generally consists of pressing olives (either unripe or ripened) to produce a fresh olive juice, rich in oil, and then separating out the oil from the watery (aqueous) part. The processing can impact flavor, but it’s really the difference in the olives themselves that makes these oils so unique, and tasting a monocultivar oil really lets you savor the characteristics of each type of olive.

Olives are all part of the same species, Olea europaea, but have hundreds of different cultivars which grow around the world. Cultivars are essentially a variety of a plant which has a set of characteristics that can propagate to other plants, through grafting or seeds. Sometimes a cultivar may be referred to as a varietal, but cultivar is a more accurate term for olives. (For a fascinating sidebar on cultivars versus varietals, check out this link).

Squash is a great illustration of how different cultivars look and taste different, and can be adapted for different uses. Believe it or not, pumpkins, decorative gourds, spaghetti sqush, zucchini, and acorn squash are all the same species, Cucurbita pepo. These squash may seem wildly different, but they are just cultivars that have been bred to bring out certain desirable characteristics over many generations. Another example on our tables is the species Brassica oleracea, whose cultivars show up as collard greens, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. Olive cultivars range from small olives like the arbequina, grown for table use and a mild olive oil, to large gordal olives, grown in southern Spain, and cured while still green for table use.

The final oil I tasted was a Moresca monocultivar, which had a bit of a nutty flavor as well as that distinctive green flavor that I love in olive oil.

So, with all these different flavors available, does it make sense to keep a monocultivar oil around the house? That depends on a number of factors, as these oils are not cheap, and a single (small) bottle may be twenty dollars or more.

  1. Identify how you plan to use your oil
    If you plan to use the oil in an application where you are going to heat up your food, it’s probably not worth it, as you likely won’t taste the difference anyhow. For most cooking, I use a blended oil from the grocery store, and use more interesting (and expensive) oils as a way to finish a dish and enhance the flavor.
  2. Be comfortable using the oil up in a short period of time
    If you do buy one of these oils, make sure you use it when it is fresh. Although they can be pricey and the temptation is to savor them over time, the oil starts to oxidize once it is opened, and even unopened oil will degrade over time. Buy just enough that you can use it an enjoy it, and buy something fresh once it’s gone.
  3. Make sure you get an oil you truly enjoy
    It’s easy to read descriptions of different oils online, but much like wine, without tasting it yourself, you don’t know if you would enjoy it. I love pungent oils with a strong “green” flavor, but not everyone does, and you need to make sure that if you are spending money on a monocultivar oil, it’s something you truly love.

Bottom line, if you ever have the chance to do a tasting of different olive oils, in particular different monocultivar oils, absolutely do it. See which oils you like, and take note of which ones you do not enjoy. It will let you expand your exposure to different oils in a low-cost (or free) way. Or, if you have a friend that tends to keep a variety of oils around (hint, hint), stop by for dinner (once we have a vaccine for COVID-19) and try all the oils available. If you find that there is an oil you truly love, buy a small bottle, use it up quickly by drizzling on dishes as a finishing oil, and then repeat with another bottle of something delicious when you are ready.

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