Only one in 12 bottles of olive oil submitted to Fortnum & Mason makes it onto its prestigious shelves. I guest judged at a tasting session to find out how they pick a winner.
Every February Fortnum & Mason invites olive oil producers from all over the world to submit their new season’s oil to a blind tasting, where a panel of foodies – including Fortnum & Mason buyers, shopfloor staff, importers, journalists and customers – spend a week scrutinising them for bitterness, fruitiness and pepperiness: the holy trinity, when it comes to olive oil.
Like wines, olive oils reflect the terroirs in which they are grown, the type of olive, and how they are picked and processed; no two bottles taste the same. Indeed, we were told to expect everything from lemony flavours to lychee, banana skin, chocolate, grass and even tones of farmyard before beginning the tasting session, which took place in Fortnum & Mason’s wine crypt (pictured here).
There were six of us trying just under 20 olive oils that morning (in total, around 150 will be judged over the week) and it involved drinking (and swallowing) oil, noting down the taste, and giving a mark out of six. I had to warm every sample pot in my hands first, to bring it up to body temperature and thus release the aromas, and you’re supposed to sluuuuurp the oil like you would when wine tasting. But I choked the last time I tried that, so a delicate inhalation and a roll about the tongue had to suffice.
No two oils tasted the same… some were nutty, others leafy, spicy, woody, pungent, floral, or even metallic. My favourite sample – the second one we tried – was spookily reminiscent of pea shoots in both aroma and flavour. Light, delicate and feminine, it immediately created an image of springtime picnics in my mind, with bright green salads and lashings of lemonade. Amazing how a drizzle of olive oil, something usually reserved for decoration or a finishing touch, can have such a powerful effect.
By the close of play my trachea felt like a well-greased piston, and I had to chow down a Chelsea bun to soak it all up – goodness knows how the Fortnum & Mason buyers manage two olive oil tasting sessions a day (which amounts to drinking 1½ litres of olive oil in one week!). Although I’m sure they’ll have wonderful skin, elastic arteries, better memory, lower blood pressure and 97 other benefits because of it.
Like I say, only 20 bottles of olive oil will make it on to the prestigious Fortnum & Mason shelves next year, and I feel flattered to have played some small part in the selection, especially when the store sells around 8,000 bottles a year. Here’s hoping my pea shoot olive oil makes the final 20!