Olive oil researcher interview Agusti Romero

What is your role in IRTA and how do you help small artisan producers elaborate better oils and market them?

I am researcher at IRTA ( Institut of Agrifood Research and Technology)  since 1987. Currently, I am the olive growing and oil technology team leader. This is a R+D small group doing high level research in collaboration with other universities and technological teams and apply the research with our cooperatives and traders. Our mission consists in helping the Catalan olive oil sector to detect weaknesses and to take advantage from its strengths. To do that, many times we have the back up of the Catalan official olive oil tasting panel.

When did you start training as a professional taster ? how many different varieties and from which countries have you ever tasted ?

IRTA helped to select and train the Catalan tasting panel in 1994 and I am proud to be a taster of the panel since then.

In Catalonia we have more than 50 olive varieties and in the world there are up to 2.000. These varieties behave different depending on the growing area and olive oil changes along the fruit ripening. Then, the pressing process can modify the sensorial profile as well. Thus, the sensorial variability through the extra virgin olive oil is huge.

Why do we insist so much on the categories of oils and the difference between early and late harvest?

Actually, there are three categories for olive oil (“extra virgin”, “virgin” and “lampante”) The last one is the worst quality and cannot be bottled without a complex refining process. Then “extra virgin” is the highest quality category were sensorial expression is maximum. Finally, “virgin” category is a very interesting category,  that many times can only be found in the producing areas. The sensorial expression is not so extreme, but very smoothed and fine.

Early harvest oils are a quite new product in the market, since growers tend to harvest as late as possible in order to get a higher oil yield. This late harvesting produce sweet and flat oils that do not add any flavour to the food. However, harvesting when olives are still  green change dramatically the sensorial profile, oils are greener in colour, very rich in green and fresh aroma, and very robust in mouth. Though some consumers do not like them, because of such heavy mouth-feel, others love such intensity and complexity that is like eating a fresh olive.

What do you look for when qualifying an e.v.o.o. as an exceptional one ?

A “premium” oil must be expressive, complex and with a fresh mouth after-taste. It can be robust but never unbalanced.  That means that nose and mouth intensities must be similar. When this happens, it is possible to think about the origin of the oil, trying to find the variety, the ripe moment, if the grove was irrigated or not and if the pressing process was very energetic or softer. To sum up, when aroma and taste are clean, regardless the intensity, it can be stated that fruits were of good quality and the process was accurate.

Is packaging a key factor affecting the quality of an oil after its purchase?

In fact, olive oil is very sensitive to light, temperature and oxidation. Thus, packaging have to be effective to avoid those problems as much as possible, especially at home. For sure, the family cooking habits are relevant for this.

How can the consumer appreciate the difference between an early harvest oil and a e.v.o.o. with ripe/black olives?

Early harvest oils smell like vegetables (mown grass, green banana, raw artichoke or similar) and use to have some bitter after-taste, especially when eaten in raw.

Do you recommend frying with e.v.o.o. ?

Absolutely. Frying is a cooking operation that aims to cook quite fast the external part of the food, without heating too much the inner part, developing colour and crispiness externally and developing new aroma. Temperature is a key factor, but not the only one. It is obvious that some oil enters the food adding its taste and aroma. EVOO is the only natural oil (without any additives) that supports the highest temperature without relevant changes. Furthermore, the food taste is better and the digestibility too. You never have any fatty sensation after eating fried food with EVOO.

What is the fuss about free fatty acids and acidity levels ? are they so critical ? do they influence the taste of an olive oil? We see the graduation very frequently on bottles typically from 0.1 to 0.4 marked.

The problem is that acidity is a figure that can be compared easily between samples and consumers love to compare, does not matter whatever the figure means.

But acidity is only a standard quality criterion among others. It gives information about a particular degradative reaction where water breaks the oil into its basic components (free fatty acids and triglycerides). However, this reaction is not the only one that can happen. Oxidation is another one, and peroxide value and UV absorbance values inform us about this process. Fruit damage affects the final oil quality as well and sensorial analysis permits us to control that. And there are some more analytical tools to verify that the whole olive oil producing process was fine.

Acidity or peroxides do not taste at all. Thus, it does not make sense to use them as criteria to buy a particular oil. If you check a refined sunflower oil, acidity is less than 0.2 but this is an ultra-processed food not natural at all.

Actually, acidity is a useful tool for producers but not for consumers.

What’s the fuss with EVOO awards ?

An awarded EVOO is a good oil that liked a jury. However, each contest follows different rules, some reward extreme intensity, some other search for balance or expression. In addition, many high quality oils are not presented to any competition. Thus, it does not make sense to search only awarded oils. In our view, it is better to taste different oils, trying to gain know-how with experience.

What should a non expert focus on to start appreciating EVOO differences?

My personal advice, put some EVOO in a cup of wine, enjoy the transparency, brightness and colour, stir the cup and smell. Enjoy the delicate green aroma. Stir a little more and smell again, the smell changed a little becoming much richer and complex( number of flavours you can identify).This is because volatiles weight different, some appear first and some other later. Put a little in mouth and give some time to develop mouth feeling. It could be too burning for you, but after some seconds this sharp sensation will turn down and a final fresh feeling is the clear sign for a high quality EVOO. Try the same with another EVOO and you will see the differences. Welcome to the richness of EVOO, all of them different, all of them good.

Now, dare with some bread or salad. Enjoy the experience.

How would you encourage butter consumers turn into all day evoo lovers?

In my view, it is a question about the final body feeling after eating. EVOO never develops a fatty or tiring feeling. You can have two or more EVOO and select one depending on what you want, to add some fresh and green taste to the meal, or just diluting and mixing al the flavours of the recipe in harmony but having a pleasant digestion. If you search for the Mediterranean taste, never use either butter  nor refined oils.

What are the challenges artisan producers face nowadays and in the near future?

May be the more urgent challenge today consists in producing “premium” EVOO for a growing market without losing real quality. Some local varieties cannot supply big markets; one option is to join with other producers to offer packs with several local varieties, more diversity instead of big volumes. However, this is challenging for the traditional rules of the market, especially the rules from retailers that prefer a short list of options. Then, once the new consumers repeat with EVOO we need to have some feedback and try to adapt the offer to their expectative. Another challenge concerns the new concepts for packaging that must deal with the new concepts of sustainability.

Are you more passionate about health benefits or flavour?

When you live in the Mediterranean basin you look for taste, may be because we assume that our food style is healthy, for sure.

In recent months there was a lot of focus on the immune boost EVOO offers consumed as part of a healthy diet and way of living the Mediterranean way. Can you indicate a few of the benefits to our health?

In fact, EVOO is some kind of superfood, because it is a very complex food. Not just oil. EVOO is reach in mono-unsaturated fatty acids that increase good cholesterol level in blood and reduce to bad one. It is rich in Vitamin-E (tocopherol) which is a powerful anti-radical and antioxidant. EVOO is the unique oil with a particular group of polyphenols with high antioxidant capacity, even after eating and even while cooking. Some of them have the same structure of well-known anti-inflammatory. Some others have a blood pressure action. We already said that they are highly digestible and EVOO is a very pleasant food. What else?

Where do you see the future of Spanish olive oil producers and specifically Catalan farmers ?

The future needs to convince more consumers from the uniqueness of the product. We need to find the way to explain the non-producing countries how we enjoy the easiness we have to find different and high quality EVOO close to our homes. If we fail on that, the future market will consist on just a few traders with big brands, part of the charm of the product will be lost.

Can you give us 3 simple recipes with your favourite variety of evoo ?

First one, try with a simple loaf of bread, grated tomato on top and some ‘Arbequina’. You can toast previously the bread if you like. It pairs fantastic with cheese or jam or cold roast-beef.

Second, cook a simple omelette with some drops of EVOO in the pan.  ARbequina or Empeltre varieties are perfect for that.

Third, warm up EVOO in the pan. Flour some fresh sardines or anchovy (previously gutted). Fry the sardines one minute per side and put in a plate. Put a thyme branch (or some dried thyme leaves) in the hot oil (10 seconds is enough) and then add a small cup of wine vinegar. When the vinegar has evaporated, put all this onto the sardines. You can take it hot or cold the day after. If you take some good bread, it is even more delicious. Powerful EVOO are very good for this recipe and you can try with Picual or green Coratina (Italian); however, my favourite pairing is with ‘Morrut’ variety from south Catalonia