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Marco Martino, oil sommelier.

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The best way to tell a good EVOO is to taste it.

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Sam Wu is the only known Singaporean water sommelier.

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'Natural Mineral Water' is the highest certification given to bottled water.

Would You Like Some Water With Your Meal?

Forget wine. Oil and water sommeliers could be the next big thing
Dec 27, 2019 5:50 AM

MARCO MARTINO
Founder, Comolio

WHILE HIS WINE counterparts sniff and swirl in search of the best varietals and bouquet, Marco Martino is doing the same, but with extra virgin oil instead of an old or new world wine.

The Singapore-based Italian is among a rare breed of olive oil sommeliers - yes, there's actually such a thing - certified by the Associazione Italiana Sommelier dell'Olio since 2016.

Having grown up in Puglia - the land of ancient olive trees in the south of Italy - Mr Martino thought he knew all about olive oil - until an official sommelier course introduced him to the theory and tasting components of the oil, complete with trips to farms to discover cultivars.

He says, ''It was purely out of interest that I pursued the sommelier course, knowing that in Italy and beyond, there were no professional careers for olive oil sommeliers yet. But I sensed there would be greater interest in the extra virgin olive oil sector, because of its nutritional value and organoleptic characteristics.''

The 34-year-old's objective is to dispel the many misconceptions that people have about olive oil - chief of which is that it's the same as extra virgin olive oil.

''Olive oil comes from a refinery and doesn't have the nutraceuticals of an extra virgin olive oil,'' he explains. So when you buy a bottle that says 'Olive Oil', you're getting ''a blend of olive oil and two per cent or more extra virgin olive oil - and it does not come from a mill (only extra virgin olive oil does) but a refinery''.

Another misconception is that ''extra virgin'' sounds like it's a pure product, conjuring up romantic visions of farmers pressing the oil by hand on their farms, much like winemakers crushing grapes with their feet. 'Virgin' is the means of oil extraction by machine, while 'extra virgin' refers to the pH (acidity or basicity) of the oil. So extra virgin olive oil means that it has a pH level of 0 to 0.8, says Mr Martino.

Don't be fooled by terms like 'first press' either, he says. ''There is only one press, so the first press does not exist!''

CHOOSING THE BEST

When selecting high quality extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), read the label to see where the oil is made and who the producer is, says Mr Martino. Next, look out for the year of harvest or better still, serial numbers on the bottles, which tells you how many bottles were harvested in a particular season. Very rarely do bottles provide an acidity reading (ie, the isolated fatty acids that form when pressing the olives) which tells you about the freshness and flavour.

Still, it's hard to find labels with such details so you need to build up your own experience and taste. ''It pays off if you know a lot of smells or taste so you can quickly pick them up when tasting oils. Your nose should be able to pick out good fresh smells, like green grass, green vegetables, tomatoes or flowers, reflective of a high quality EVOO. Most importantly, a real EVOO has a bitter, spicy taste.

''Many people say 'we don't like how it pinches the throat' but spiciness is the most important quality of an EVOO, it means that the oil is full of polyphenols, a powerful antioxidant.''

Tasting sessions are important and Mr Martino is hoping to do more of that with Comolio, a platform he created that's dedicated to connecting EVOO lovers with farmers. The Italian language platform now works with 32 farmers and he is planning an English version this year. And hopefully convert more Singaporeans to the joys of EVOO.

SAM WU
Chief Executive Director, The Water Sommelier

GROWING up in Singapore, Sam Wu remembers drinking boiled tap water that filtered through a brownish sock wrapped over the faucet. Today, he is tasting the world's finest waters as a sommelier accredited by both the Doemens Academy and Fine Water Academy.

He started out at Doemens Academy in Germany in 2018, studying chemistry and water tasting as part of its Water Sommelier course. He went on to pursue an online Water Sommelier Certification course by Fine Water Academy, founded by pioneer water sommeliers Martin Riese and Michael Mascha.

Inspired, he set up The Water Sommelier earlier this year, to spread the word about natural mineral water. He is also looking at importing the best waters from Europe and around the world. ''My aim is for people to be able to look at a bottle of water and know exactly what they are getting.''

While olive oil has colour and flavour, water can confer emotion, says Mr Wu - even shock. He recalls a bizarre experience of static shock opening a bottle of Serbia's Tesla Voda, the world's first electric 'interactive' alkaline water. ''It was great fun,'' laughs the 29- year-old.

He explains that the fundamental way to classify water is to differentiate between what is natural and machine-purified water.

Water gets its taste, texture and health properties from naturally occurring minerals (such as calcium, magnesium or sodium) measured in units of mg per litre, and so is classified according to the mineral levels.

Anything less than 50mg is considered very low. A high mineral content range would be 800mg to 1500mg, and anything above that is considered very high. Medium minerality would range from 250mg to 800mg.

'Natural Mineral Water' is the highest form of certification Europe awards to bottled water. To earn this, the water has to be as pure as it is at the source, and not have undergone any kind of purification to alter its mineral content.

The water with the lowest mineral content he has come across is ISBRE, a Norwegian natural mineral glacier water with just 4mg per litre - the lowest for any natural mineral water in the world. Donut Mg, from Rogaska, Slovenia, is on the other extreme with 13,197mg.

His favourite is Krondorf, a luxury water from the Czech Republic. Naturally sparkling, it's rich in minerals, full-bodied and savoury in taste.

The vocabulary for describing water can be limited. ''There's no smell and if there is, it's likely an off-flavour. It's predominantly tastebased and limited to sweet, sour, salty, bitter.''

Worldwide, English-speaking water sommeliers like Mr Wu are few and far in between, numbering 500 at most, with no other known Singaporeans in the field. But that might all change if he gets his way, as he is setting up South East Asia's first Water Sommelier Certification programme accredited by Doemens Academy. And before long, you might find yourself being asked, ''Would you like water with your meal?''