We have often talked about the surprising organoleptic qualities and health benefits of a high quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil. However, many of us are conditioned by years of consuming mediocre quality oil and we struggle to distinguish a high quality product. This is why it is important to start food education, early, in elementary school!
It all started in collaboration with some olive growing associations, when community projects related to olive growing, began to foresee the development of courses of first approach. The idea to educate the consumer about the true quality of EVOO was born. These would be courses that were not limited to training only olive growers, oil mills and experts in the sector, but would extend to the masses.
Elementary schools came to my mind because during the SOLAGRIFOOD trade fair of organic gourmet foods in Verona, I had seen several young boys sip olive oil using the classic method of the professional taster and they spoke enthusiastically about their discoveries. At that point I thought EVOO education could be successful in schools and so I proposed the idea to some school principals. When we launched the program in the first school, an elementary school, it was such a success that the Principal asked me to come back every year, should the project continue to be funded.
At the beginning, however, these elementary school kids seemed skeptical. The mere thought of having to taste raw olive oil made them shiver. I had to capture their attention and stimulate them. It took a bit of theory to make them understand the simplest characteristics about oil. I talked about the olive tree, its fruit, the olive's health and flavor properties. Obviously, this last concept, flavor, seemed strange because in their respective homes none of them had ever tasted raw olive oil and popular (yet incorrect) Italian belief holds that consuming oil without anything, can actually cause intestinal problems.
After surpassing the first hour of theory and by now interested in this topic so different from their usual school material, I used the method which then proved to be a winner. I explained to them what they had to recognize in a good oil. I took the example of fruit. Any fresh, healthy, ripe fruit gives off a characteristic smell of the fruit itself. So, logically, even the olive had to, once cold pressed, express its own characteristic smell, accompanied, in addition, by other aromatic notes that depended on other factors.
So we started the first test without them ever having had a lesson on how to taste an oil. I took 2 espresso cups for each of them and poured, without showing them the labels, two types of oil. One of these oils was flawed and one was an Extra Virgin. I told them to concentrate, thus capturing their attention, and to slightly inhale the smells emanating from the contents of the two glasses and then to compare them to see if they were a little different, similar, equal, or profoundly different. Looking at their expressions was already a victory. Their spontaneity was the strength of this course because it revealed the true feelings and perceptions of that moment. Thus began the stream of enthusiastic comments, and everyone wanted to have their say. I made them talk a bit and then I asked them to focus and answer my questions:
Q: Do you taste a difference between these two oils?
A: Yessss! (unequivocal answer that left no shadow of a doubt)
Q: Little, medium or a lot of difference?
A: A lot of difference (in chorus) At that point the fateful question:
Q: Which oil reminds you of the fruit of the crushed olives that your mother or grandmother prepare at home?
A: The first (unanimous)
It was true! The oil with the n. 1 was an Extra Virgin Olive Oil, while the other oil, no. 2, was a subspecies of EVOO (so labeled), but defective.
The first step was brilliantly passed and so I started to ask some specific questions to understand how far they could go. I asked them if the smell of the good oil, in addition to olives, reminded them of other things. At first no one answered because, apparently, nobody wanted to expose themselves on a new and "slippery" topic for them.
Next I asked if they had ever been in a field of grass and obviously they answered in the affirmative. I asked if they remembered some smells while in the grass and obviously they answered they did. Then I suggested they try oil no. 1 again to see if they could smell that smell. I saw them concentrated, intent on recognizing this aromatic note and I saw their expressions change positively, incredulous. They were surprised because they didn't expect it. The oil smelled of cut grass. I reiterated to them that a good oil always reminds us of something fresh and found in nature.
Children are not conditioned by smells and are able to memorize easily. In comparison, adults are conditioned by their own habits and preferences and because of this convincing them about the defects of oil is difficult. Children have an easier time when learning about tasting in this way.
We repeated the test 5 more times and it was always a triumph. Even in the oil tasting they proved competent and recognized all the "good" oils. The following day they returned disappointed due to the fact that I had asked them to taste their household oil using the classic method they had applied. They had realized that their household oil was equal to the defective oil No. 2.
But one unexpected, sensational thing, was the final test of each day (there were 3 lessons of 5 hours each). Each kid chose the oil he liked best to put on the slice of bread. I saw their joy in tasting the bread enriched with EVOO oil as they spoke enthusiastically. Not one, not two, not three, but each of them ate at least 4 slices of bread and oil. It occurred to me, then, to ask if they preferred their packaged snack over bread with EVOO. Not one of them said they preferred their packaged snack. Then I thought about how important these courses are in schools. Not only are children educated about food, but EVOO is promoted over more expensive packaged snacks as a healthy alternative.
I extended the course to middle school and high school. The latter responded very well, middle school, much less. It is likely to depend on age. I wonder why the different Italian regions do not think to establish these courses every year. With low costs, the market could be directed towards quality consumption by favoring those companies that invest in this sector. Unfortunately Covid19 has momentarily caused everything to be on hold. We'll see what happens next school year. Maybe this unique time will assist the desire to change our perspective and invest in future programs."
E. A. Gaspare Rocca