The event spontaneously popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. Half joking, half intrigued, I put myself down as “interested.” When a friend also expressed curiosity, we decided to book our tickets and give it a try.
All we knew was that it was an “extra virgin olive oil master class” led by Dr. Alfredo Marasciulo and hosted by ITMAW UK at Emmanuel College; canapés and wine were promised to follow. With the exception of these few details, our first impressions would be completely uninformed. We were immediately greeted with the sight of dozens of unlabelled miniature olive oil vials, ranging in colour from opaque jade and clear gold to almost black. We were also greeted by the sound of animated spoken Italian; all of the organisers were native speakers, as well as about half of the audience. Others were simply Italophiles. As an MML student, I considered my participation a part of my academic approfondimento, a word used in Italian schools that literally signifies “deepening” but is more similar to our concept of extra credit. A warm welcome was provided, and, of course, complimentary Prosecco.
Once the master class began—in true Italian fashion, at a languid tempo and
only after a convivial introduction—Dr. Marasciulo began to speak of the importance of extra virgin olive oil with authority and pride. Truly knowing what defines the quality of olive oil, he emphasised, was a skill that many pretend to have but do not actually possess. He even admitted to playing a plainclothes game in grocery stores, innocuously asking fellow shoppers for their advice on which olive oil to buy. Often they gave confident responses, without actually knowing what features made an olive oil so good. For example, unlike wine, the newer the olive oil—the more recently pressed—the better. In the first hour of the lecture, Marasciulo broke down the audience’s misconceptions of olive oil, discussing qualities such as acidity, grades, and pressing. We then moved onto the tasting portion of the class. We had expected to accompany our samples with bread; Marasciulo told us that the true hardcore way of tasting olive oil was in its pure form.
And, just like the importance of quality in extra virgin olive oil, this was no quick process. First, the sample cup had to be warmed up, which can be done most easily between the palms of one’s hands. Then we had to smell the olive oil: not a quick whiff, but rather a proper inhalation. Finally, to taste the olive oil, it had to be “aerated.” Aerating the olive oil is more or less equivalent to slurping it in through the teeth, an act which Marasciulo said may seem, “come si dice… maleducato?,” but nonetheless necessary for true degustation.
We sampled eight or nine shots of pure olive oil, and then – as a reward for our stamina – four more with bread. We tried everything from three-day-old presses to a 1997 lampante, an extra virgin olive oil unsuitable for consumption. We looked for notes of cut grass and for a slight burn in the throat, all signs of freshness and high quality. Marasciulo memorably described one slightly older, but high quality sample as “an old, but beautiful, mature lady.” Inevitably, as the class progressed the atmosphere became more and more relaxed. There was something comical and surreal about collectively slurping olive oil, to then nod emphatically in agreement that “this one had the aroma of a newly cut lawn.”
And yet here we were, exploring what was perhaps, along with wine, one of the most frequently associated images of Italian culture: freshly pressed olive oil as a ubiquitous and vital part of Italian food or, more broadly, the nation itself. As cliché as it may seem, the Italian synonymy with olive oil reflects a greater pride in the artistry and craftsmanship of national produce – an attention to detail that can be seen throughout in the Italian traditions of art, fashion, and food alike. From Florentine leather jackets to the meticulous technique of the Venetian school or, of course, a bottle of olive oil produced by a small grove in Puglia, Italian products have a longstanding tradition of precision and artisanal quality. Marasciulo’s emphatic remarks echoed this sense of national dignity, just as our seemingly amusing evaluations stemmed from a genuine respect and awe for the Italian qualità di vita.
When the session came to a close, we had become completely immersed in the jovial atmosphere of olive oil tasting, alternating between conversations and comments in Italian and English. It was an intense three hours of detailed information that I could not have previously imagined; lampante, for example, is a word I would have never thought to affiliate with the pungent musty scent of a clear, black and inedible oil. It was a Saturday afternoon well-spent: one that celebrated a shared experience of Italian culture and language, the kaleidoscopic range of olive oil samples, copious chilled white wine, and, of course, a passion to learn.
Original artwork by the author.