Let me start out by saying this is a long interview but if you are into food, especially olive oil, you are going to want to read every word.
Who is The Olive Oil Hunter?
T. J. Robinson is one of the world's most respected authorities on olive oil. He travels around the world tasting and looking for the finest selections of olive oils available on the planet.
As one of the few Americans asked to serve as a judge in prestigious Italian olive oil tasting competitions, he has been described as having a "platinum palate." His specialty is knowing which specific olive varieties, growing regions, and little know estates and family-owned groves scattered throughout the Mediterranean and elsewhere produce the most heavenly, flavorful, and healthy olive oils.
It is my pleasure to introduce you to T. J. Robinson, aka "The Olive Oil Hunter".
RG: Thank you, T. J., for giving me the opportunity to share your vast knowledge of olive oil with my readers. And thanks again for sending me samples of your fresh-pressed olive oils from the Spanish harvest. They are so different—much fresher and more flavorful—than any olive oil I’ve ever tasted. What’s their secret?
TJ: As I tell all my foodie friends, if you want to experience the world’s most flavorful olive oil, there’s just one three-word secret to remember—fresher is better.
Olive oil, unlike wine, does not improve with time. Just the opposite. Olives, after all, are a fruit. And just as with fruit juice, olive oil is at its zenith of flavor and nutritional goodness immediately after it’s pressed. This is why the locals in the olive-growing regions of Italy, Spain, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries go wild—as do I—for fresh-pressed oil.
In many of these regions, the growers throw big parties at harvest time to celebrate the pressing of their new oil. The locals adore its vibrant, youthful bloom of green, fresh flavor and abundant health benefits. These marvelous qualities start to fade within three to six months after bottling. This is true of all olive oil, even the most expensive, which is why fresh-pressed oil is superior to any other olive oil you’ll ever taste.
RG: Why don’t the oils in my gourmet store or supermarket taste this fresh?
TJ: The big problem for us in America is that only a precious trickle of fresh-pressed olive oil ever makes it to our shores. The vast majority of olive oil that finds its way to the U.S. gets shipped months—maybe even a year—after pressing, and travels here by slow cargo ship. As a result, the oil’s fresh, bright flavor is already on a downward spiral by the time it is unloaded at our docks. And then it may languish additional months on store shelves, losing more flavor and growing more stale.
This is why most olive oil companies don’t put a harvest date on their bottles. They may put a “best used by” date, but not a harvest date. They don’t want you to know how old the oil is. Savvy olive oil lovers know that if an olive oil is already nine months or older when they buy it - as most oils are—its healthy polyphenols and antioxidants, and above all, its fresh flavor, are already degraded or largely destroyed.
By contrast, my unique mission is to race our hand-picked estate and artisanal oils “from tree to table in 30 days or less” —that’s our motto—at the peak of their harvest-fresh flavor.
RG: Please go on - you were talking about the problems with store-bought oils here in the U.S.
TJ: The overall problem is that for years America has been a dumping ground for some of the world’s worst oils. Unfortunately, many international producers believe that American consumers will buy anything as long as it has a fancy label, a pretty bottle, or a well-known brand name.
RG: What’s wrong with the oil inside many of those pretty bottles?
TJ: I’ve already mentioned there’s a universal lack of freshness, which means the oils are at best quite dull when compared with fresh-pressed oil. At worse, the oils are so stale that they’re even turning rancid, which means you’ve lost out not only on taste but also on the oil’s health benefits. Rancid oil is one of the unhealthiest foods you can put into your body. There are other problems, as well.
RG: Such as?
TJ: Many oils available here—especially those labeled “light”—have actually been chemically stripped to eradicate any defects that would normally disqualify them from being labeled “extra virgin.”
Also, many of the large olive oil companies, because they require so much oil for the mass market in the U.S., collect their olives from hundreds or even thousands of growers. Then they transport the oils pressed from this amorphous mass mixture, devoid of singular character or taste, via container ships. These ships often travel from port to port for a long time while the oils slosh around in hulls that are not temperature controlled. Heat and cold damage olive oil’s flavor and nutritive value.
Adding insult to injury, when these oils eventually hit the supermarket and gourmet stores, again they are often stored at less-than-optimum temperatures, which only hastens their deterioration. Once on the shelves, they are exposed to fluorescent lighting all day long. Light is murder on olive oil and takes a heavy toll on taste.
This is why you should always store olive oil in a cool, dark place and should never buy olive oil in a clear bottle! Another problem, though not as common, is dilution with less expensive oils. I’m sure you’ve read about the adulteration scandal in the Italian olive oil industry.
Olive oils destined for the American market, in many cases, have been found to contain oils other than olive—rapeseed, for example, or cheap nut oils from other countries. To its credit, the Italian government has taken steps to curb fraud in its olive oil industry, but the problems are still widespread. It’s easy to understand why. On one hand, the popularity of olive oil and the Mediterranean diet are soaring worldwide.
On the other hand, the money that unscrupulous producers can make by diluting olive oil with cheaper oils can be huge. Because of the vast quantities involved, authorities say that the counterfeiting of olive oil can actually be more lucrative than the drug trade. It’s much easier to get away with, the risk of getting caught is low, and the criminal penalties are relatively minor.
RG: How do you avoid these evils with the oils you import?
TJ: Let’s take them one at a time. First, freshness. Our oils are insanely bright, green and flavorful, which you can taste for yourself.
RG: Yes indeed!
TJ: This is because we race them here by jet straight from the harvest. We completely bypass the usual months-long distribution channel that other oils must navigate—from olive grove to the pressing mill, then to overseas warehouses, then to ships, then across the oceans, then to U.S. warehouses, then to regional distribution centers where they may languish additional months while stores sell off old inventories. Store owners are loath to throw out expensive olive oils, so they keep them on the shelves until they sell. Only then do they reorder.
In contrast, our custom-selected oils are raced, as soon as they are pressed, from the mill to a waiting jet plane that whisks them to the U.S., where they are transferred to rapid delivery trucks and rushed to our Club members’ doorsteps. As for our other quality controls, I am a fanatic, a certifiably neurotic perfectionist about every stage of our Club’s selection process. It helps enormously that, unlike the mass marketers of olive oil, our Club is so small and exclusive.
We represent a relatively tiny number of highly discriminating olive oil lovers. Since we don’t need massive quantities of oil, we have the luxury of handpicking our oils from the finest boutique producers and traditional family-owned estates around the world. From my many contacts in the industry and years of globetrotting, I know who the highest-quality artisanal producers are. These artisans and families are fiercely proud and protective of their names and reputations.
They wouldn’t dream of dishonoring their good names with inferior oil. Even so, I don’t take chances. I personally visit these premier growers during their harvest to personally inspect and taste their latest offerings. I also run spot-check lab analyses to confirm absolute purity. But believe it or not, the human palate—and I’ve got a well-trained one—is still the most reliable way to assure purity and extraordinary taste.
Also, while I taste for myself every oil under consideration, I also bring other highly trained independent tasters with me to verify my impressions. Moreover, many of the oils I select are the top award winners in their regional olive oil competitions, independently acclaimed as the best that a given region has to offer. Almost all of these award-winning artisanal olive oils are of such limited vintage that they are never shipped to America, with the sole exception of our Club.
On my recent trip to Spain, one of the growers said, “T. J., nobody does what you do!” I asked him what he meant. He said, “The other olive oil buyers in America never visit us and taste each oil before making their selections. They do everything by email and phone from the States.” He admired my fanatical dedication and confided that it inspired him and his local artisanal competitors to vie with each other to give me their very finest and most flavorful blends, as they know that I am their toughest judge and the one American buyer who would most appreciate their best oils.
They also know that we deal with some of America’s most discriminating olive oil lovers, including well-known chefs, prominent restaurateurs, and influential food writers, and they want their oils to reach and impress such people. After I’ve selected my favorites from the many exceptional oils offered, I have them bottled on the spot and shipped by jet to our fulfillment center in America. When they land, we run a series of tests once again to be sure the oils we selected are indeed the ones that have arrived.
Once we’re totally satisfied, we race these treasures to our members by rush delivery so they can experience the extraordinary fresh-pressed flavors with their family and friends. Because I am so hands-on at every step, and because I deal exclusively with boutique artisanal producers and respected family estates who are fiercely proud of their heritage and reputation, our members get to enjoy the finest, most flavorful olive oils on the planet, oils that suffer none of the multiple indignities heaped upon mass-market olive oil.
RG: Let me now ask about you, T. J. How did you come to be doing this? Surely as a child you didn’t look in the mirror and say, “When I grow up I want to be ‘The Olive Oil Hunter.’”
TJ: No, not exactly. But I’ve always been extremely passionate about all things edible. I grew up running around my grandparents’ garden barefoot, plucking the ripest and tastiest heirloom cherry tomatoes I could find. Later, after dropping out of what I called “real” college, I went to culinary school to further my passion for wonderful food. I excelled quickly and in spite of my young age became the chef at the Biltmore Estate Winery in Asheville, North Carolina, in the town where I was born.
While at the Biltmore, I met visiting Food Network celeb and über-talented food and wine journalist David Rosengarten. After working together over the weekend, he invited me to New York City to become his assistant. Moving to New York to work with David was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I spent most of my seven years with Rosengarten tasting the very best in food and wine, in New York and around the world. I’ve visited close to forty countries in my search for the absolute best gastronomic experiences.
Along the way I got to enjoy items that were completely unavailable in America. One item I discovered in Sicily was fresh-pressed olive oil. With one sniff, I fell madly in love and could not imagine living without it all year round. So I worked diligently and creatively to bring fresh-pressed olive oil to America on a regular basis.
RG: What exactly are your qualifications to be “The Olive Oil Hunter”?
TJ: I would say the most important qualifications are a passion for great olive oil, a well-trained palate, and a love of adventure. I seem to have been born with all three. First, I truly have a passion for great food. And since I have devoted my life to finding the world’s most flavorful olive oils, my passion for fresh-pressed olive oil has grown into a glorious obsession.
I’m thrilled and grateful to be able to work at something that makes me happy, and I’m proud to share my discoveries with fellow foodies and friends. As for my palate, I was born with a good one. As my food mentor David Rosengarten would describe it, I seem to be a natural-born “super taster,” someone who experiences the sense of taste with far greater intensity than average. But I have also worked hard to train my palate to detect the fine points of olive oil appreciation.
As part of my training, I’ve taken olive oil appreciation classes in California at UC Davis. And when we first formed the Club, I hired a highly respected olive oil expert, the British writer Judy Ridgway, to travel with me and teach me the ropes. Judy taught me the secrets of what to look for and how to taste like a professional when selecting the very best, freshest olive oil.
Finally, as for the love for adventure, my suitcases are always packed and I’m ready to vagabond over mountains, oceans, and whole continents to find the freshest and most flavorful olive oils on the planet for my Club members, whether in rural Tasmania or along the Israeli border.
RG: I’m sure many of my readers are thinking how great it must be to travel the globe sampling the world’s best olive oils, but I’m sure there is a lot of work involved and it isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. Can you speak on that subject?
TJ: The worst parts are the jet lag, challenging flight schedules, and amazing meals I must endure while visiting world-class producers around the world (wink, wink.) Being in the fresh-pressed olive oil business is my life’s work, my passion and pleasure, but there are many stresses, especially due to the unique way I do it.
In addition to gallivanting all over the world, I’m often up all hours of the night making sure our producers are on track with our order. Leaving nothing to chance, I personally shepherd every aspect of the oil's rush delivery to America, including booking the jet service, transportation to the airport, clearance through customs and red tape, and so on. From the moment our prized olive oil flows from the press, it’s a race against the clock to get it into my members’ hands and on to their tables for enjoyment.
We strive to deliver the oil “from tree to table in 30 days or less,” while the oil is at its peak of freshness and flavor. That puts pressure on me during our shipping cycle. By the way, this peak of freshness and flavor for the oils we ship will last from three to six months, after which even the best olive oil starts to decline.
RG: What makes a great olive oil?
TJ: I taste mostly for three things: fruitiness, bitterness, and pepperiness. Actually, the most important part of my selection process is screening out what I don’t want. I’m always looking for telltale defects. When I taste, I “listen” with my palate and the olive oil always tells me its story.
It tells me with honesty and openness if the olives were plucked from their tree early, late, or at the right moment of the harvest.Letting the olive oil privately confess its story to me, including any and all flaws, is akin to how a trained wine critic listens to the wine. In tasting, I focus not only on detecting subtle defects, but also on what I and most foodies, chefs, and olive oil connoisseurs look for.
It tells me if the olives were plucked tenderly by hand or brutishly by machine, resulting in damage to the fruit.
It tells me if the olives were rushed to the mill at their peak of freshness or if they had to sit and wait too long before the pressing, causing some off-tasting fermentation to set in.
It tells me if the equipment the olives were pressed on was pristinely clean or not.
That is, we want olive oils that are “ALIVE” and have an aroma reminiscent of rolling around in a field planted with green grass and culinary herbs. I like my oils to be well-balanced and light in viscosity with pleasing flavors that linger and make me swoon.
RG: When I first tasted the Castillo De Canena and Portico Dela Villa that you gave me, I was surprised at how incredibly fresh they tasted. I was struck by their greenness and their smell of sweet hay or grass. To be honest, I was at first confused by their flavor because I’m not used to such youthful olive oil. I’m wondering if this is a common reaction from people you meet who are not accustomed to fresh-pressed olive oil?
TJ: Yes, it is a common reaction from people who have never had fresh olive oil. Some people, once they’ve had their first taste, describe it as an epiphany. It’s as if they’d been cooking with dried herbs their whole lives, and then suddenly replaced them with fresh herbs!
The truth is, people often hold preferences for familiar flavors—their mother’s chicken soup, for example—or even poor quality olive oil, oil that’s dull and past its prime. Sometimes the bitterness or pepperiness associated with really fresh olive oils and high polyphenol levels surprises their palates, as do the flavor nuances like hay or grass that you mentioned. But their palates quickly grow accustomed to this awakening, this explosion of freshness and flavor. And then they crave it. From then on, they find they cannot go back to consuming inferior oils. They become addicted!
RG: For those first-time tasters who may be startled by the freshness and the lush herbal nose, what would you tell them?
TJ: Sometimes people ask if our early harvest oils are “infused” because they’re so green and flavorful. I have to explain that the only thing in the bottle is fresh olive juice. Like wine grapes, olive varieties have different flavor profiles which can be influenced by soil, climate, date of harvest, etc. And like wine, there is a certain vocabulary that has evolved to describe those flavors. One oil might be reminiscent of culinary herbs or green tomatoes, while another might be more fruity or buttery. We also look for balance and a good mouthfeel or viscosity.
RG: After tasting the two oils straight off the back of my hand, I decided to sample them with some roasted potatoes and tomatoes we were having with dinner. The vegetables cut the bitterness and all I could taste was pure olive flavor. The oil seemed to bring my vegetables to life and gave them a whole new unique taste. Can you speak a little about how fresh-pressed oils bring out food’s flavor?
TJ: We humans are conditioned to crave fats—we love oil-rich dressings on our salads, butter on our potatoes, and where I’m from—the South—bacon with everything! I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Fat equals flavor.” And it’s true. Olive oil is a flavor carrier, and when it’s exquisitely fresh, it’s a seasoning in its own right. It’s the perfect “mother sauce” for food.
A bold oil, for example, is sensational when splashed on a char-grilled steak. It emphasizes the steak’s meatiness and tones down the bitterness of the char.When the oils are as fresh as these with flavors at their peak, they can be used just like a condiment. When we send our Club members their fresh-pressed oils, we include suggestions for flavor-enhancing ways to pair them with foods and use them in traditional recipes.
A more delicate oil can be the perfect complement to roasted or steamed vegetables, mild fish, white beans, rice, or potatoes.
RG: I’ve experienced how these fresh-pressed olive oils can be perfect for dipping and finishing dishes, but can I cook with them?
TJ: Absolutely. I cook with fresh-pressed olive oil almost every day. I cook my morning eggs in it, drizzle it over toast, mash potatoes with it, and marinate meats in it. Cut it with a little fresh lemon juice, and it’s perfect over salads or roasted vegetables. You can even bake with it. The only thing I would not use it for is high-heat frying or sautéing. It has a lower smoking point than peanut or other vegetable oil, and the heat breaks down the flavor and healthy qualities of olive oil.
RG: A question on terminology: Does “fresh-pressed” olive oil have to be “extra virgin” olive oil or is there such a thing as fresh-pressed “virgin” olive oil?
TJ: Any olive oil, regardless of quality, can be described as “fresh-pressed.” The term is not a formal classification. Only oils that are free of defects and that satisfy the quality markers established by the International Olive Council can be called “extra virgin.” We would never consider oils for our Club members that didn’t meet the high standards of the IOC. Our fresh-pressed oils are exclusively extra-virgin, meaning we deliver to our members the freshest, most flavorful, and highest-quality extra-virgin oils available on earth.
RG: When you are at an olive oil grand tasting, what specifically are you looking for? Please describe your procedure for tasting olive oil and how home cooks can follow the same approach when judging their own oils.
TJ: First, I’m looking for a glorious “nose”—an aroma that leaps out of the glass. The oil should smell fresh and green. I shouldn’t detect any indication of defects either on the nose or the palate, signs the olives were mishandled at some point. Mustiness would be a red flag, for example, as would a “winey” smell.
On the tongue, I’m looking for a bouquet of harmonious flavors and nuances. Is it fruity? Well-balanced? Too bitter? Peppery? Earthy? Does it have a lingering, interesting finish? A pleasant mouth feel? Some olive oils taste too heavy and, well, oily.
Everything has to come together as in a great wine that just knocks your socks off. Contrary to popular belief, color has very little to do with an oil’s flavor profile. A yellowish oil, for example, does not mean the flavor will be buttery. In fact, professional tasters use special olive oil tasting glasses—blue or brown—to mask the oils’ hue and prevent judgments based on color.
Members of the Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club receive instructions for hosting an olive oil tasting party with each shipment. But tasting oils at home needn’t be a complicated process. Simply pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a brandy snifter, cover the top with one hand, cup the bowl in the other, and swirl the oil to warm it and aerate it. Then remove your hand from the top of the glass and immediately smell the oil.
What associations does it trigger? Then taste the oil, letting it reach all parts of your tongue and taste receptors. Record your impressions, if desired. Professional tasters usually cleanse their palates between tastings by drinking water and eating wedges of green apple. But I also like to try the oils with simply prepared foods—bread, cheese, a green salad, potatoes, or roast chicken. You will be surprised at how the oils change when paired with food!
RG: You mentioned color. With wine I can look at the color and know if it is young or old. Is there a way to tell the age of olive oil by looking at it?
TJ: Unfortunately, there is no definitive way to tell the age of an oil by looking at it, although a greener oil may be an indication of olives that were harvested early. Some unscrupulous producers even add chlorophyll to their olive oil to make it greener, tricking consumers into believing they are buying a young, polyphenol-rich olive oil.
RG: What about smell? Is there a distinctive bouquet associated with fresh-pressed olive oil that is different from oils that are six to nine months old or even older?
TJ: Definitely. The oil should smell fresh and bright and should evoke associations with newly mown grass or freshly cut hay or even green tomatoes—all indicators of fresh oil and high polyphenol levels. Older oils might smell rancid or musty or even vinegary—meaning what’s in the bottle is sure to disappoint. Most of the oils on American store shelves have been warehoused for months in tanks, then sent to the U.S. via cargo ship, meaning they can be “elderly” even before the price stickers are slapped on.
RG: Once I open one of these fresh pressed olive oils, how much time do I have before it loses its exquisite qualities? Or, phrased differently, how soon do I have to use it up?
TJ: Unlike wine, olive oil does not age gracefully. Fresh olive oils have high antioxidant and polyphenol levels, which help protect them from degrading. That’s why they are so healthy for us! These are Mother Nature’s healthiest preservatives and they help to “preserve” us in good health as well! Ideally, you would use the oils within three months of receiving them.
We send three bottles per quarter. Some Club members open one bottle at a time, because oxygen, like heat and light, is an enemy of flavor. I usually advise people to open the most delicate oil first, as indicated by the tasting notes that accompany the shipment. However, many members cannot resist opening all three bottles at once in order to compare their unique qualities. I cannot blame them because I do this myself. I love comparing the different flavors.
RG: I hear foodies talk about different olive oils going better with different foods. They say some are better for dipping while others are better for drizzling and yet others are better for vinaigrettes. What’s your opinion on this subject and how do you recommend pairing food and olive oil?
TJ: I usually have several oils in my pantry —
a bold, assertive one for bitter greens or char-grilled meats or tuna.Generally, my advice is to use what you enjoy. Olive oil is similar to wine in that there is great latitude in using and consuming it. No rights, no wrongs.
Then I have a medium one for beans, potatoes, and pasta.
Finally, a delicate one for foods that require a lighter touch, like eggs, tender lettuces, soups, mild fish, or roast chicken.