The sociology point of view on oil tasting
Marcello Scoccia, deputy chair of the Onaoo, and Carlotta Pasetto, sociology master student, describe their experience as tutor and student, respectively, of a master thesis in sociology. The role of oil tester is central; technical skills together with creativity are at the heart of this job
Oil tasting has a long history but until recently the figure of taster has been relegated apart from the attention of public. This situation has improved in the last years and most probably in the next future it will happen to oil tasters the very same that happened to wine specialists; there will be a category of very skilled oil sommeliers, that will make a job out of tasting, and a vast number of hobbyist tasters. Tasting is a pivotal step in assessing the quality of oil.
When I was invited to be involved in this master thesis, both as a tutor and as an interviewee, being a professional oil sommelier and chief taster of an important institution, I got very interested, since I reasoned it would have been a way to question myself about my job.
The role I have as a chief taster in both the Onaoo, the most important tasting school in the world, and in a big company, which is a world leader in oil production, had a central role in the thesis.
I gave my contribution about the technical know-how of oil tasting. In this context, we analyzed in depth the sensorial analysis of oils, from the oil selection and the study of different oil features, to the formation of blends. Most importantly, we deepened the most important aspect of this job, which is the combination of technique and creativity.
Moreover, given the interest of an important University, such as the Trento one, and in particular of a non agriculture-related department, i.e. the Sociology one, I was really excited in probing the deep reason that induce tasters to do their job.
Being a full-time taster is very important for the oil community. Living of this job full time and spending my time in all the related activities has been the focus of the thesis.
To me this was a great experience. However, my contribution to the work would not been enough alone; the thesis needed the special skills of Carlotta Pasetto as well, now a great expert of olive oil.
The main questions the thesis faced were the role of tasting in the definition of the characteristics of a product, the tools employed by the professional taster and, most importantly, how it is possible to make an intrinsically subjective experience objective, consistent and stable in time. These aspects were studied thanks to a series of researches and interviews made by Carlotta Pasetto to many professional tasters and sensorial analysis experts in different fairs and meetings.
The consumers’ preferences were another important aspect of the dissertation. In particular, I was really surprised by this statement by Bourdieu (1984): “Taste is the foundation of everything we are and we mean for others; it is what it is used to assign someone to a class”.
This is a very interesting quotation, since there is still so much to understand about the perception of aromas and tastes. “Taste” – quoting from the thesis – “is a very sophisticated and precise system that allows to trace taste back to the whole sensorial perception of food”.
Oil tasting and sensory description has been standardized by the EU (Panel), since it is regulated in the context of the product description procedures. At the same time, many non-standard tasting modalities and sensory categories have been created by companies, where tasting is considered as a tool for quality control, blending formation and batch testing. As a matter of fact, there is a complex world behind oil tasting that deserves a sociological investigation, as proposed and performed by Carlotta Pasetto.
The professional taster names perceptual sensations. In this perspective he has a key role. Naming sensations allows the creation of a shared vocabulary and a repetitive judgment about taste and aromas. In this context, evaluation forms are a necessary form of written and stable form of transmission of the assessments. Finally, it is interesting to report what Czarniaswka e Jorges said in 1995: “Everything that can be seen by more than one person becomes objective”.
The idea of a thesis on the professional tasting of a food, and in particular of virgin olive oil, derived from my curiosity to understand how the quality assessment of something can rely on a human opinion and even be considered as an accepted parameter for the market.
My curiosity arose from the observation that food industry employs a lot of quantitative parameters for the identification and the description of the intrinsic characteristics of a product, but still everything comes after the subjective evaluation of tasters.
As a matter of fact, from the customer perspective, being “good or bad” is the only relevant different between two products. But, as I discovered in these last months, there is way more behind the work of a professional taster.
Hence, aim of my research was to understand how the subjective assessment and the personal experience of a taster can identify the fundamental and objective features of a product. The work was organized in three stages. First of all I was interested in understanding the role of tasting in assessing the product characteristics. This meant studying how human perception can judge fundamental features of the product and why technological devices cannot do the same. Second point of my dissertation was to understand how the professional tasting takes place and how experience influences the perception beside scholastic rules. Finally, in the third section I explored how the personal and subjective tasting experience is shared and made concrete and what is the impact of professional tasting procedures on the final consumer.
Given my little experience in this field at the beginning of my work, I referred to many people that describe themselves as “expert tasters”. The more I learnt about this world, though, the more I realized that many of them where actually not true experts and that their experience was limited to some tasting course or to some very specialized and local oil production.
After deeper researches I found Onaoo, the oldest tasting school in the world. There, I met their chief taster, Marcello Scoccia, which helped me to explore and understand the complex world of oil tasting and sensory analysis. Thanks to his vast experience and passion, qualities he describes as peculiar of professional vs. hobbyist tasting, I learnt the secrets of this fascinating world. Marcello Scossia, tutor of this master degree thesis, added a lot to my work, thanks to his knowledge and the attention and passion he put in this work.
What I learnt in these months of research and interviews is that the great intrinsic value of olive oil is exalted by means of professional tasting, that makes the most of the product and, at the same time, the presence of professional tasters guarantees consumers on the quality and the value of the product.
Hence, professional tasting is a resource for everybody that allows customers to understand and to be more aware of what the buy and consume.