While his wine counterparts sniff and swirl in search of the best varietals and bouquet, Marco Martino is doing the same, but with extra virgin oil instead of vino.
The Singapore-based Italian, and founder of Comolio, is among a rare breed of olive oil sommeliers – yes, there’s actually such a thing – certified by the Associazione Italiana Sommelier dell’Olio since 2016.
Having grown up in Puglia – the land of ancient olive trees in the south of Italy – Mr Martino thought he knew all about olive oil – until an official sommelier course introduced him to the theory and tasting components of the oil, complete with trips to farms to discover cultivars.
He says, ”It was purely out of interest that I pursued the sommelier course, knowing that in Italy and beyond, there were no professional careers for olive oil sommeliers yet. But I sensed there would be greater interest in the extra virgin olive oil sector, because of its nutritional value and organoleptic characteristics.”
The 34-year-old’s objective is to dispel the many misconceptions that people have about olive oil – chief of which is that it’s the same as extra virgin olive oil.
”Olive oil comes from a refinery and doesn’t have the nutraceuticals of an extra virgin olive oil,” he explains. So when you buy a bottle that says ‘Olive Oil’, you’re getting ”a blend of olive oil and two per cent or more extra virgin olive oil – and it does not come from a mill (only extra virgin olive oil does) but a refinery”.
Another misconception is that ”extra virgin” sounds like it’s a pure product, conjuring up romantic visions of farmers pressing the oil by hand on their farms, much like winemakers crushing grapes with their feet. ‘Virgin’ is the means of oil extraction by machine, while ‘extra virgin’ refers to the pH (acidity or basicity) of the oil. So extra virgin olive oil means that it has a pH level of 0 to 0.8, says Mr Martino.
Don’t be fooled by terms like ‘first press’ either, he says. ”There is only one press, so the first press does not exist!”
CHOOSING THE BEST
When selecting high quality extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), read the label to see where the oil is made and who the producer is, says Mr Martino. Next, look out for the year of harvest or better still, serial numbers on the bottles, which tells you how many bottles were harvested in a particular season. Very rarely do bottles provide an acidity reading (ie, the isolated fatty acids that form when pressing the olives) which tells you about the freshness and flavour.
Still, it’s hard to find labels with such details so you need to build up your own experience and taste. ”It pays off if you know a lot of smells or taste so you can quickly pick them up when tasting oils. Your nose should be able to pick out good fresh smells, like green grass, green vegetables, tomatoes or flowers, reflective of a high quality EVOO. Most importantly, a real EVOO has a bitter, spicy taste.
”Many people say ‘we don’t like how it pinches the throat’ but spiciness is the most important quality of an EVOO, it means that the oil is full of polyphenols, a powerful antioxidant.”
Tasting sessions are important and Mr Martino is hoping to do more of that with Comolio, a platform he created that’s dedicated to connecting EVOO lovers with farmers. The Italian language platform now works with 32 farmers and he is planning an English version this year. And hopefully convert more Singaporeans to the joys of EVOO.
This story was originally published in The Business Times.