academia barilla  December 2006

How to Taste gourmet food

It is a joy to spend the bulk of my days on [...]

Academia Barilla Cooking SchoolIt is a joy to spend the bulk of my days on the beautiful campus of Academia Barilla, a place that is about more than just simply food.Here, on any given day, hundreds of professionals are leading cooking classes to budding Italian chefs or to vacationing tourists, or they’re testing, sampling, tasting and deciding upon hundreds of products, and, of course, they’re always working to protect the beautiful surroundings of the Academia and our fine home of Parma.

We’re lucky to study and work in a location that has the world-famous Gastronomic Library, where an index of over 7,500 volumes of historical culinaria are kept.

However, my favorite task here at Academia Barilla is the tasting – I am one of the lucky professionals here who get to taste, test and sample our products on an ongoing basis.

One might ask: How do you taste food for a job? Simple – with my tongue!
All kidding aside, the job of taster, or, better said “tester” is truly a tough one.

Italian DOP product samples for tastingHere are some of the standards I uphold as I taste new products, or old favorites:

What do I know about the production of this item? Where did it come from? Do I know the farm, or the proprietor of the business that produced it? Knowing these elements in advance can sometimes bias my tasting, so, I prefer to make tasting notes and then later find out about the production. It is important, however, to ensure that quality production is consistent throughout – a producer with wavering product (whether it be fruit, vegetable, or actual finished product like Prosciutto di Parma or Extra-Virgin Olive Oil) can be a tell-tale sign of poorly upheld standards.

Visual Analysis – how does the product look? In the case of cheese, what color is it? It is hard, soft, or semi-soft? For meats, is it cured thoroughly? For olive oils or wines, is the liquid composition constant throughout the product, or is there sediment at the bottom of the bottle? All of these visual cues are essential to fully understanding a food product and its eventual smells and tastes, and quality.

Olfactory Analysis – does the product smell good? Does it smell like it typically should, and are there any variances I should note? The smell of a product can predict a lot of things about the taste and quality of the product, including its age and its storage. If a Pecorino Toscano smells a little sour, it can be too young, or have been stored in too hot of a setting before tasting. Often sour-smelling cheeses can taste very sour, bitter or even putrid – an experience that is not fun to have.

Taste! While some might think this is the best part about sampling foods, it can often be the hardest. Trying to discern certain tastes out of a 25 year old Aceto Balsamico tradizionale di Modena can be very tough. Nonetheless, I aim to understand the complex flavors of the product I am tasting. Is it sour? Sweet? Bitter or salty? How is the aftertaste, and does the flavor linger on my tongue, or in the back of my throat? These are all complex questions that will dictate how I rate or appreciate a tasting experience.

When possible, I’ll try to include a tasting guide with some of my future product write-ups.

Of course, if you’d had an experience you’d like to share about a particular taste you’ve had with one of the products I write up, or, if you have any questions, please feel free to share in the comments below.

Buon sapore a tutti!

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