One of the debates with olive oil is whether it is better in its monovarietal form or as a blend or coupage as it is referred to in the wine world. The truth is both can be fantastic but in my opinion a great blend is unbeatable as it opens the doors to a limitless world of creativity and nuances that would not be possible with one single variety. There are of course the purists who say the skill is in producing a grand monovarietal oil, which is balanced by nature. Although this may be true, when I refer to creating a blend I am not referring to the typical blend or coupage you may find in the supermarket, I am referring to artistic blends that take these very monovarietal oils that are grand in their own nature and blending them further with other great oils to add complexity and roundness to the aromas and flavour. Blending is normally used to hide defects or add attributes that certain oils should have had but didn’t produce through the harvest, this is what I call “Correction Blending”. What I am referring to in this article is “ Enhancement Blending” when we take some great oils and combine them to make a masterpiece which would be impossible to create with any monovarietal olive oil. This is where I believe the real skill lies as one must produce or locate various varieties to achieve a certain signature flavour and aroma. In essence it sounds rather simple but it can get extremely complicated when the last thing we want to do is hide or muffle certain positive attributes instead of marrying them together as one. It is a bit like an orchestra, listening to a violin or a flute independently can be quite a pleasurable experience, but listening to a full-blown orchestra, which is harmonised and playing a one, is quite unforgettable.
There are not many master blenders in Spain or in the world as a matter of fact, who truly have the talent and skill to compose a work of art and fortunately I have had the privilege of meeting a few in my time. I compare them to the master whisky blenders although they have never had that level of recognition due to their fairly recent existence and that there are few who have actually developed this skill.
Blending olive oils is much like starting with a clean canvas. You more or less know what you want to paint so you prepare the paints you will need and your tools. Some blenders will try to replicate a previous year’s harvest while others will try to innovate and create a completely new experience. Spain has over 250 varieties to choose from and another 700 or so varieties around the Mediterranean basin, each with it’s distinct bouquet of aromas and flavours which will all be different depending on what time of year they were harvested and by which method, so the variables are limitless, just like a painter’s palette. Naturally this level of blending takes a real expert nose and mouth and a fair bit of science. It is quite amazing when you find a great blend/coupage and can smell totally opposite attributes in the same blend but in a balance manner. Notes of freshly cut grass and green almond fused with red berries and banana that leap from the oil and can be smelt across a table. These contrasting nuances aren’t possible with one variety but make for a unique experience. My dear friend Miguel who I have mentioned in other posts is one of the few master blenders in Spain and has achieved harmonious blends with up to seven varieties. When I say harmonious, I mean that an expert can still determine the blends that were used and that not one variety covers up or shadows out another. Each variety plays a role, as do the violin and the flute in an orchestra.
Blending can be taken to a simpler level and while one is learning, it can be centred on what we call marking a “profile flavour”. This is something you can actually do yourself at home and it will help you build your palate. When I refer to profile blending, I mean that we concentrate initially on only the four major characteristics of extra virgin olive oil, which are Green Fruit, Sweet Fruit, Bitter and Pungent. Naturally I am assuming that the samples that will be used are free from any defects and are true extra virgins. The objective would be to create your ideal balance of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency (pepper). So really, this process will be a case of trial and error but I will give you some guidance to help you on your way just in case you wish to start blending at home your own masterpiece! You may find that your local mill only presses a certain variety that is too bitter or too peppery for your liking. Well this can be “corrected” as it is clearly an unbalanced oil as the pungency is overpowering. The secret is to find a balance, so no one attribute overpowers any other and we can enjoy all the different flavours as the oil passes along the different sections of the tongue and throat.
The first stage is to select your samples and classify them, taste each olive oil and note its characteristics including the level of intensity of bitterness and pungency on a level of 1 to 10. These are the two strongest characteristics and can end up overpowering everything if they are not balanced well. Then you should determine its fruit description whether it is a green-fruit oil or a mature-fruit “sweet” oil, as well, on a scale of 1 to 10, if you are using various varieties. You can refer to my glossary on aroma and flavour description to aid you in classifying your oils (link below), but at this stage it should be fairly obvious. The next stage is totally subjective, there is no right or wrong answer here it is a question of matching your desired profile. Whether you are using 2 or 3 samples (be wary of using too many different samples at this stage as you will probably end up with a dull blend where all the flavours are hidden amongst themselves and become undetectable). You would have chosen the samples because each of them have an attribute that you like or can counteract an imbalance that you dislike, such as a sweet olive oil will dilute pungency and bitterness which can be undesirable if they are too overpowering, while maintaining certain “green characteristics” which are desirable. But be careful as these strong characteristics, such as pungency or bitterness are disproportionate to the percentage distribution used. Very bitter olive oil will need a larger percentage of “sweet” oil (non-bitter) to counteract it and if all your samples carry this characteristic it will be impossible to end up with a “mild” olive oil (less pungent) as a final blend. Whichever flavour you are aiming for, I would suggest starting off with equal parts of each variety, it makes the exercise that much easier. Start of my mixing 40 ml of each variety to create the base blend, taste the sample and take your notes. Then start to make slight adjustments with the percentages moving towards your desired flavour. A good tool for this is a plastic syringe (like the ones supplied with cough mixture) that holds at least 10ml. It makes it so much easier for measuring the adjustments.
It is very important not to make to many adjustments at once, as you will probably find it hard to determine the differences. It is also important to take into consideration palate fatigue, so you will need plenty of granny smith apples, bread sticks and water to neutralise your palate between tastings and you will also need to rest your palate for a few hours when you reach the point that you can’t tell the difference anymore! Once you have found what you believe to be your favourite blend, mark it down and adjust further to make sure you have actually reached it. Let several hours pass by and re-make the blend to the specifications of your ideal blend and taste again on a fresh palate. If it agrees with your notes and your requirements, that’s you done. You have created your own personalised blend. You may be surprised how the flavours change from one day to the next as your palate differs.
It is very important not to use perfume or after shave or have any ambient smells in the environment the day you are blending, this will obstruct your progress tremendously. Oil tasting works best in the morning, when your taste buds are more relaxed and wait for at least an hour and a half after eating, drinking coffee or tea etc. before starting your oil tasting procedure. You need a neutral palate and patien ce to be successful. It may appear to be fairly laborious and time consuming to finally reach your goal, but knowing that your blend is unique and made for you, will make you enjoy it all the more.
Other popular articles by Ian Mackay ©
Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - Introduction-Part 1
Go to article: The World of Olive Oil- Olive Oil Categories-Part 2
Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - How to recognise an authentic extra virgin olive oil - Part 3
Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - Olive Oil Tasting - Part 4
Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - True Virginity - Part 5
Go to article: Can I fry with Oilve Oil?
Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - The perfect Crime Scene - Part 6
Go to article: The World of Olive Oil - Harvesting Olives - Part 7
Go to article: Spanish Cured Ham-What you need to know
Go to article: Olive Oil Recipes - Langoustine Pil-Pil
Go to article: Olive Oil Glossary