The Art of Olive Oil: Athena IOOC Tasting and Awards Day

(Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Radinovsky)

By Lisa Radinovsky/greekliquidgold.com,

Have you ever seen 201 award winning extra virgin olive oils in one room? If you were at the Athena International Olive Oil Competition’s tasting day and awards ceremony at the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens in April, you not only saw them but tasted any that struck your fancy. Like Anita Zachou, you had a chance to experience “an explosion of the senses!”

Zachou came from the island of Mykonos, where she heads Mykonos Olive Oil Tasting, to try these awarded olive oils. Inside the hotel’s elegant ballroom, she said, “it’s like a journey; you are here, and you taste olive oils from many different countries.”

Angelica Peterson reported that she “never knew so many olive oil types existed!” Enthusiastic about her discovery of “the art of olive oil,” this American was surprised to find oils from Croatia and Turkey, as well as the better-known olive oil producing nations of Greece, Italy, and Spain. Staying at the Grande Bretagne with her husband Anthony, who said “we’re in Greece; we have to try the olive oil,” she was fascinated by her first olive oil tasting experience. Anthony decided to tell his history and geography students about it.

Another international visitor had come to two other editions of the Athena International Olive Oil Competition (ATHIOOC) tasting day. Olive oil taster and Double Gold medal winner Carlo Di Giacomo traveled with his father from Abruzzo, Italy for the third time. Spanish award winners were also there. Alvaro Garcia-Rosales, Economic and Commercial Counsellor at the Spanish Embassy, praised the six Spanish companies awarded Double Gold medals, as well as the “very, very high” quality of the Greek olive oils he has tasted. He was impressed by the tasting event, which he considered “a great initiative” in a beautiful setting.

Vangelis Varaklas of Delicious Crete considered the tasting day and ceremony so important that he delayed his return to Crete after a business trip to China. He came “to taste as many olive oils as I can,” although he hadn’t seen his family for 11 days and didn’t “even know if it’s day or night.” Also going far out of her way, Valia Kelidou of Kyklopas drove nine hours from Alexandroupolis in northern Greece with her husband and father for what she called “the biggest olive oil tasting in Greece.”

Why the great effort to attend? Aside from the fascination of tasting many award winning extra virgin olive oils from various parts of the world, Dimitris Anagnostopoulos of One & Olive believes the tasting event helps his team improve. Last year, One & Olive team members tried all the olive oils at the Athena tasting day. This year, they were the only Greek Double Gold medal winner at the competition.

That could be a coincidence; their success may be due to their other special efforts, including their “pioneering production process, which reduces the production time by 86% and minimizes the contact with oxygen,” but it also seems to be part of the company’s dedication to serious study. In any case, Anagnostopoulos considers the tasting day and awards ceremony “a great chance for the olive oil community from different countries to meet together, a great opportunity to taste different olive oils.”

Maria Gabriella Anagnostopoulos added that it is important to give olive oil the same consideration as wine: especially at a tasting day like this, “we see there are different olive oils,” so we can think about pairing them with different foods. Many agree. With a strong background in the wine world, ATHIOOC chairman Constantine Stergides believes “Greek olive oil is where wine was 20 years ago”—getting ready for a major renaissance.

Several years ago, Stergides explained to Greek Liquid Gold, he and ATHIOOC manager Maria Katsouli decided to establish a strict international olive oil competition based in Greece that would be taken seriously internationally. They aimed for “a competition that is so trustworthy that the best olive oils in the world that send samples to three or four competitions send them to us. We want to become a partner for the top producers, and we think this will be good for Greece.”

So, for example, they limit tasting to 30 to 35 samples per day, only in the morning, in place of the tiring all-day tasting of many more samples at some competitions. (In the afternoon, judges explore the culture of ancient and modern Greece with excursions to such sites as Mycenae and Delphi.)

This year, Stergides revealed at the awards ceremony, ATHIOOC became “the only competition in the world that gives the list of olive oils they tasted” to the judges after judging is completed, along with the codes used during blind tasting. That way, judges have a record of the final scores, and organizers cannot tamper with the results—a major step toward transparency. Next year, ATHIOOC will start working with a notary and testing awarded olive oils at the mills, another step toward ensuring accuracy for producers and consumers.

Another major innovation at ATHIOOC this year was digitization of the score reporting process, so paper assessment sheets were no longer needed. This enabled a variety of improvements, including more time for judges to focus on the oils (instead of arithmetic), the presentation of various statistics, and spider diagrams displaying each olive oil’s flavor and aroma attributes (such as fruitiness, spiciness, bitterness, sweetness, and specific aromas including fresh herbs, freshly cut grass, and tomato). Olive oil companies received these diagrams, which they can use to describe their products to consumers.

According to George Economou, director of the Association of Greek Industries and Packers of Olive Oil (SEVITEL), “highlighting the quality of olive oil is a prerequisite for its successful presence in branded form on the world market, which guarantees its prospect and future.” The ATHIOOC competition, tasting day, and awards ceremony aimed to highlight that quality in numerous ways.

(This story was originally published on Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil: greekliquidgold.com. See that site for recipes with olive oil, photos from Greece, agrotourism and culinary tourism suggestions, and olive oil news and information.)

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