I first met Nicholas Coleman at the first ever New York International Olive Oil Competition in April at the International Culinary Center. It was an exciting event, with the who's who of olive oil (and there is a who's who of olive oil!) there in spades. Hundreds of hopeful olive oil producers had entered their products—their babies—with hopes that the panel of judges would bestow distinction upon the fruits of their blood, sweat, and tears—their beloved oil.
Coleman was the youngest judge on the panel. He also is Eataly's resident oleologist, and half the team behind Grove and Vine, where he creates custom olive oil and wine tasting seminars with sommelier Dan Amatuzzi, Eataly's Wine Director. He's given olive oil seminars at Eataly, NYU, and Columbia University, and worked with big-name chefs to dream up olive oil tasting menus. Last year, Coleman graduated Summa Cum Laude as a certified technical olive oil taster from ONAOO (Organizzazione Nazionale Assaggiatori Olio di Oliva, or the The National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters), Italy's premier olive oil tasting school. In other words, when it comes to olive oil, Coleman is the man.
We spoke to Coleman about his passion for the lordly lipid (his term) and how to choose and taste the best olive oil at home.
What made you pursue a life in olive oil? After graduating college, I took a trip from the Arctic Circle in Finland down to the Sahara Desert in Africa with nothing more than a backpack. I wound up in Italy in late October during the olive harvest, and an old friend put me in contact with Nadia Gasperini Rossi, who is a master oil producer just outside the town of Arezzo Mulinmaria. Together we harvested and cleaned olives by hand. When I asked her why she didn't sell her oil, she said with great satisfaction, "My olives are like my children...and you can't expect me to sell my children."
Harvesting and pressing oil with Nadia was amazing. I began to return annually to Tuscany for the harvest, and over the years Nadia has become my mentor.
So how did you go from a kid with olive oil wanderlust to being an olive oil big wig? I brought Nadia's olive oil to O&CO., the oil specialty store in Grand Central Terminal, and convinced the manager to taste it. She offered me a position. When I went to check out Eataly's grand opening, I noticed they had an incredible selection of single estate Italian oils. People seemed overwhelmed by the sheer number. I showed up the next day and introduced myself to Mario Batali, who was hanging out in the olive oil section. He hired me on the spot and I started a few weeks later as Eataly's resident oleologist.
What about olive oil lights you up? It's king of the Italian pantry and the backbone of the Mediterranean cuisine. If you have a quality bottle of extra virgin olive oil, you only need a few simple ingredients to make a truly delicious meal. It's the ultimate sauce. For the most part America is an olive oil desert, and it's exciting to be part of changing that. Olive oil is going to be the next big thing for the American people. It's where cheese was 20 years, and wine was 40 years ago.
Almost all supermarket olive oil is adulterated—it's simply not what it says it is. The more Americans choose fresh, quality oil, the more we are sending a message to the industry that we will no longer tolerate defective oil being labeled as extra virgin and sold in our supermarkets. The American people deserve the real thing.
What's one question everyone asks about olive oil? People tend to ask: 'What's the best olive oil?' There is no single best olive oil. That's why tasting is so important. What speaks to you? The proof is in the taste. I try to get people to think about olive oil like they do about wine—consider the harvest date and when it was bottled, the olive cultivars its composed of, and the region from which it came. It matters what you will serve it with, and of course your palate matters, what you love.
How does one taste olive oil? Olive oil should be tasted alone, like any ingredient. At official tastings, we use opaque, blue stemless glasses. The color of the glass keeps tasters from being influenced by the color of the oil. The glass's shape is meant to fit perfectly in the palm of a hand, so we can warm the oil and release its aromas. Once you warm the oil, stick your nose in the glass and take a big whiff. So much of what we taste comes from its smell. Then slurp a bit of olive oil as you would wine, coating the whole mouth—aerate it to allow the full flavor to emulsify and develop. Swallowing is important, too. A peppery burn in the back of the throat is caused by oleocanthal, which is a powerful antioxidant. The more of that tingle you experience, the higher the presence of antioxidants in the oil. We refer to that sensation as pungency.
What else do you taste for? First, we're looking for the absence of defects. A common defect is riscaldo. The best translation is "fusty," and this happens when olives have been piled up and sit around for too long after harvest, before they are pressed. Without oxygen flow, the olives start to undergo anaerobic fermentation.
When oil sits in vats for too long, particles of the olive can degrade the oil, causing the defect known as muddy sediment. Grubby oils occur when the olive fly infests the fruit while its still on the tree. Rancidity happens as olive oil ages and becomes oxidized.
Then we taste for attributes, the smells and flavors that make oil great. Oils can taste of green apple skin, fresh cut grass, banana, pine nuts, almonds, green tomato. They can be wonderfully bitter and pungent. These are the things that make olive oil interesting and unique.
Do you have to have an expert palate to taste for these things? You don't have to be an expert to taste olive oil. Good olive oil will taste good! If you can taste the difference between clean water and dirty water, you can taste olive oil. We taste olive oil independent of food to get insight into how it will function in a dish. Olive oil goes well with all food, but tasting the oil on its own can trigger ideas about how to cook it, serve it, and pair it.
What does "extra virgin" actually mean? To be classified as extra virgin, an olive oil must have less than 0.8% acidity and no sensory defects as judged by a panel of certified, technical olive oil tasters. So it doesn't mean that it necessarily tastes exceptional, just that it's not riddled with defects.
Are early harvest oils better? They're different. They're more expensive to produce. Young olives are more flavorful, but yield less oil. All olives begin their life green, and turn a dark purple over time. The color of the olive directly reflects its stage of maturation. The earlier the olive is harvested, the more robust its oil will be. Later harvest oils are mellower.
Someone hands me a bottle of olive oil. What do I look for? Three things: the harvest date, where it comes from (this means the specific region, not just the country), and the cultivars, or what olives the oil is composed of. If these essential elements are missing, it doesn't speak well to the quality of the oil or the producer.
You want to choose olive oil from the most recent harvest. In the northern hemisphere, olives are harvested in the fall. In Tuscany, harvest begins somewhere at the end of October and continues into November. So right now, the freshest oils are from the 2012 harvest.
Like with wine, different seasons and different years make for unique oils. But unlike wine, fresher is better. Like fresh fruit juice, oil does not improve with age. Once you open a bottle, try to go through it in 60 days. Keep it somewhere cool—not near your stove. The best conditions are those of a wine cellar, with protection from heat and light.
Oils of dubious origin will sometimes say "Product of Italy" on their labels. They might be a blend of oils from all over the world, simply bottled and shipped out of Italy. Good olive oils nearly always state the specific region they were produced in.
No one country has a monopoly on quality olive oil. There are world-caliber oils being made in Australia, North and South America, North and South Africa, and of course the Mediterranean. The true beauty of olive oil is in its regional diversity. Different microclimates and growing conditions get expressed through the oil.
Do oils from a specific region share a motif? Like wine, the terroir matters a lot and influences everything about the oil. Oils from the Liguria and northern Italy tend to be light, buttery, and sweet. They work well for delicate dishes, and won't overpower vegetables, fish, eggs, or potatoes. They are perfect for pesto. These oils tend to support other flavors without overcrowding flavor real estate.
Oils from Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio in central Italy are more assertive and bitter, with a peppery finish. They often taste like freshly-cut grass. They are great for steak and soup.
Southern oils from Sicily and Puglia are vibrant, crisp, and assertive. They pair with grilled fish, tomatoes, beans, rosemary, and eggplant...but there are always exceptions and it's very personal. It's about what speaks to you.
Is cooking with olive oil okay? Olive oil has a smoking point of about 400 degrees, which is quite high for cooking at home. My advice is to put oil in a cold pan and warm it slowly, simmering it gently, so that you don't destroy the oil's flavor. Cook with a mid-priced oil, and save your expensive oil for drizzling and finishing. Have a few oils in your arsenal, for different purposes and recipes.
About the author: Hannah Howard is a food writer who spent her formative years eating, drinking, serving, bartending, hostessing, cooking, and managing restaurants. She now writes about delicious things for a living, for great places like Fairway Market.