The EVOO oil sommelier is still a little known figure, yet just as fascinating as that of the wine sommelier.
The culture of EVOO oil struggles to emerge and be known among consumers. The latter have little knowledge regarding such a precious product, as Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and this ignorance on the subject is often a source of unsuitable purchases that risk, among other things, compromising the health as well as not making food tasty.
Compared to the past, the EVOO world (although still lagging behind, in terms of communication with respect to the wine sector) is starting to take its first steps to train professionals who also act as intermediaries between professionals and consumers, offering, for example, courses of training for sommeliers.
If the world of wine is still predominantly very masculine, the olive sector attracts more women and female EVOO sommeliers are not a rarity.
Marije Passos is one of them and is one of the most highly rated reference figures in the sector. Her adventure in the world of oil begins in Portugal when she takes over the grove of her in-laws in Passeite. Today, Marije teaches not only companies but also consumers.
Let’s find out more about her professionalism and some useful tips from her words.
It all begins in Portugal, a wonderful land with a high olive vocation. Can you tell us more about when and how your passion for EVOO oil started?
It started around 2008, one of our first vacations where we would help pick olives. But the spark came later, I started to search why one year to the other the olive oil flavour of the same grove was so different. I wanted to know why.
Once you have taken over the grove of your in-laws, what training did you follow to make your passion a profession?
Before, in 2015, I did the Olive Oil Sommelier course in Sevilla. I read about any book I could find on the subject, visited many farms and mills in Spain and Portugal and, in 2019, me and my husband took the Agronomic and Master milling courses organised in Spain. What I took back from it is that our land is not like someone else’s, so some ground rules for managing are in place but the rest is really trial and error and learning how our land works best for us.
Today, you are an established teacher. Who are your training courses aimed at and how are they structured?
I do several and aim at different people. I help the starting farmers/hobby producers mostly around harvest time so they learn how to handle the machines, what to do at the mill, and how to take care of the trees. I have trained many gourmet shop holders wanting to sell better. These courses are more focussed on helping them answer all the questions of consumers (can you heat up oil, filtering, understanding labels, etc) but since the Covid-19 and traveling restrictions, I focussed on consumers. The most important thing for me to “teach” is people’s look on Extra virgin olive oil. I show them (because training/courses now are mostly on our farm) the effort and the differences in flavour and quality. I take a walk on our groves, showing different varieties, showing the harvest machines and the differences in amount of effort and production between a traditional farmer and a superintensive farmer. We always taste in blue cups, never with food in the beginning and after we do. I change peoples look on the product, it changes forever and they take these stories back home.
There is still little knowledge of the EVOO world. While the wine is respected, the consumers believe they can buy any Extra virgin olive oil and that this choice does not make a difference. Can you explain why this is not the case and why “making oil” requires complex skills and methods even more than wine?
Unfortunately, our industry is not as far as the wine industry explaining what is actually in the bottle (what variety, what tasting notes, with what to pair it with) A big factor is that there is hardly any space on the bottle left for this due to all the label regulations created by our industry. But yes, explaining is more difficult than experiencing. Just a simple test, learned at my course, take a pineapple, slice it up and put a delicate EVOO on one slize and an intense EVOO on the other. Then, you don’t need to explain it anymore. Like with wine, some people only like white wine or red, in our industry the issue is mostly dealing with the bitter and spice. They always think it will overpower the food and that is not the case and showing some simple examples makes them understand. But the main reason people don’t wanna invest is still price orientated. If you explain to them 15 euro worth of 500 ml of pure quality, last them 20 meals versus a good wine of 15 euros just for one dinner they start understanding better. Why not have like 3 or 4 EVOO’s with different characters in your kitchen? We stocked up our wine fridges as well, right?
The average consumer who loves to consume a good EVOO but is, often, unable to choose between the offers on the market, how can she/he defend herself/himself and select a true EVOO?
Only one way: taste or get informed. This is why I think EVOO’s can only be sold in specialised shops where you can get info about the olive oil. Obviously the “apps” and “awards” help, however small farmers are not in these due to the simple faqt they don’t make liters per batch to enter this world. I would avoid a supermarket and go to local small shops where the owners are passionate about the producers the work with and can inform you. If they can’t, you know you are in the wrong shop.
What kind of support do you offer to companies?
Wow, interesting question. I guess a very broad look on the industry, my background as Industrial Designer together with Entrepreneurship in owning restaurant and an small olive farm I inspire and teach companies to find their own place in the industry.
I have done talks, sensorial tastings with chefs, catering, making training materials and business plans so it’s pretty versatile. Feedback I get is that my passion and the way I teach is very inspiring and sometimes even contagious.
What is missing in the world of Extra virgin olive oil, according to your experience to establish itself definitively with respect to the industrial product and acquire the same prestige as wine?
Another hard question. For one: presence at restaurants. Why do we have wine-menu but there is no information about the olive oil used or what olive oil you as a consumer can select to pair with your food? The other is definitely a better presence of high quality olive oil in supermarkets. Only the multinationals are represented in supermarkets. So or buyers at supermarkets need to change their attitude towards the shelves or people need to go back to buying olive oils at specialised or gourmet shops. However, olive oil producing countries have very different supermarket shelves compared to non-producing countries, so this last one also depends on your country. Another thing, policy makers and food and health authorities need to get their faq’s right. In the Netherlands, for example, they have written articles about how dangerous it is to heat up extra virgin olive oil, which we all know is absolute nonsense…
On the small producer side, the cultural changes hopefully will come. The generation that is harvesting now (average age in Portugal is around 70 years old) still prefers a virgin or practically lampante over a good EVOO. The mills around these locations are facilitating this. We need more young people coming back to their “grandparents” groves and harvest. Where I am located this is the biggest problem. Many abandoned traditional groves with trees over hundreds years old have been replaced by Eucalyptus and Pine as that delivers fast money and hardly any labour. The costs and effort of maintaining these small groves versus the profit don’t add up. All small producers I know (and like ourselves) need to have an income or job on the side to make the farm sustainable. But when the market starts demanding, change will come for us.