Imagine sitting five hours a day (with three breaks) for three days and tasting 189 samples of olive oil. Incredible? Not for the 21 judges from 14 countries attending the First Mediterranean International Olive Oil Competition in Jerusalem.
According to Chaim Gan, the “grape man,” TerraOlivo is an offshoot of the annual TerraVino international wine competition.
Along with Gan, Moshe Spak, international affairs director of TerraVino, and Raúl César Castellani of Argentina are organizers of the event, one of only eight such competitions in the world. This one, held at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel, is sponsored by the Municipality of Jerusalem, the Ministry of Tourism, the Inbal Hotel and the Israel Olive Oil Council. Also sitting at the table overseeing the competition is a Tel Aviv corporation lawyer.
Israel is one of the founding members of the International Olive Oil Council, based in Madrid.
“My job as organizer is to make the selections of the jury and promote and market the competition,” Spak explained. “No other competition has this quantity of countries. We chose Israel because we are Israelis – we like to have events here and olive oil is identified with Israel. Jerusalem is the identity of olive oil.”
A cursory glance actually shows 30 references to olive oil in the Bible – as a means of payment, for use in anointing people, and for religious purposes, food, medicine, cosmetics and lighting.
The judges, who come from Uruguay, Spain, Argentina, Italy and Israel, use a scoring sheet looking at aroma, taste sensations and final sensation in smell and taste. They can also refer to a list of 25 descriptive words and four types of pepper.
All the judges are olive oil professionals. They drink from blue, professional, oil-tasting glasses, imported from Spain, so that they cannot see the colour. Each tasting glass has a separate glass covering. The waiters bring out the glasses from the kitchen, where the bottles are closely guarded. On the tables are bowls with slices of green apples whose acid helps clean the palette between tastings. There are also bottles of Aqua Panna distilled water and Pellegrino sparkling water.
After two days of tasting, there will be a conference on the third day with public tasting and teachers to explain how to taste.
On the final day, a grand prestige gold medal, a prestige gold medal and a gold medal will be awarded to the best olive oil, the best Israeli olive oil, the best kosher oil and the best boutique oil.
Gan presided over the tasting, reprimanding the judges when they talked at their tables and discouraging them from sharing information.
“If the Arab countries would have participated,” said Spak, who made aliyah from Argentina, “we would have a minimum of 50 to 60 samples –for example, from Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.”
Out on the patio sat Zohar Kerem, a lecturer, food chemist and researcher from the Hebrew University, a large part of whose research is dedicated to olive oil. Kerem also works with the researchers from the Ministry of Agriculture.
“My part is looking into the quality of olive oil, the effects of shelf life, the differences between glass, plastic or tin containers,” he said.
He is also involved with learning why olive oil is good for one’s health and which compounds are good for the body.
He cited some research that indicates there is a compound in olive oil that does the same thing in the body as Advil. The fatty acids in olive oil are also in a good ratio, he said.
“It is the best fat we need to consume,” Kerem said. “It also contains vitamins needed in our diet.”
The competition will be held at the end of April or beginning of May next year, and it will become an annual event, organizers said.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, food writer, lecturer and cookbook author who lives in Jerusalem.