The California State Fair has endless thrills and frills to offer. The midway holds hundreds of flashy rides and The Coca Cola Promenade features rows upon rows of food stands offering the most exotic items a person can consume,—such as the donut burgers, deep fried cannoli, and bison ribs. Critters galore hang out in the Tractor Supply Co. Big Barn…. I can go on for days. My point is, with such an expansive collection of attractions, the original purpose of the Fair is often forgotten. The CA State Fair is a place that showcases the absolute best products that our great state of California has to offer. This year, the Taste of California Experience Center is the stage for a variety of experience classes where guests have the opportunity to learn from industry professionals about some of California’s best products: beer, wine, olive oil, cheese, and honey. I was lucky enough to participate in a class entitled, “Olive Oil, YOU Be the Judge!” in which fair-goers learn how olive oil is judged professionally.
Upon arriving to the class, I was greeted by Maria Farr, our teacher for the afternoon and a professional olive oil judge. At my seat was an official judge sticker, an authentic judging sheet, three different oils to taste, a glass of water, and a tray of green apples to cleanse the palate. Maria began the class by explaining some of the protocol expected of professional judges. Something I found to be particularly interesting was that judges are forbidden from wearing fragranced products of any kind– whether it’s shampoo, deodorant, perfume, or lotion– nothing that may distract the nose from the aroma of the oils. For a gal like me who uses a slew of fragranced products, this came as a shock!
Before engaging with the oils, judges are to place the special oil cup into their palms to warm it up. I learned that the glasses are tinted dark blue so that judges don’t preemptively form opinions about the oil based on the color. While still warming the cup in the hand, you’re supposed to swirl the oil around to open up the aroma. You then stick your entire nose inside the oil cup and give it a full sniff. The oils we tried all contained notes of grass, artichoke and tomato leaf since each derived from the same olive variety. After assessing the aroma, judges score each section and then move onto flavor.
Flavor is judged using the same three categories: intensity, complexity, and harmony. After taking a sip of the olive oil, Maria instructed that you must develop your slurp to coat your mouth with the oil– think wine tasting. What shocked me most was the subtle burning sensation that some of the oils created in my throat, though apparently it is quite common of oils and has to do with how robust it is. After scoring these three categories, judges move on to the last category: final.
Final is categorized by mouth feel and finish. This sounded insane to me at first, but different oils left noticeably different feelings in the mouth. While one left the mouth with an oily coating, the other dried out the mouth leaving a clean feel. Though I personally preferred the oily feel, the dry mouth feel is apparently more desirable to judges. Once the oil has been fully assessed based upon aroma, taste, and final, points are added up to determine whether the oil belongs in the gold, silver or bronze category.
My favorite part of the class was comparing my personal rating to the score the oil received from professional judges. One oil in particular stood out to me as the best of the three, however judges gave it silver, not gold, proving how refined the judges palates are. Learning about the detailed judging process caused me to develop a great amount of respect for those who identify the best of California and reminded me of what the Fair is all about! Plus I’ve already impressed friends and family with shared my newfound knowledge!
Now, all of the information I just shared with you was learned exclusively from the experience class– I had no prior knowledge regarding the ins and outs of olive oil! Maria packed this info and more into a 30 minute class! If you’re now enticed to take an experience class or two, the full schedule can be found here: http://www.castatefair.org/experienceclasses/. Each class varies completely from the next so the possibility for new knowledge is endless!
Written by: Grace Becker