Is Olive-Oil Tasting the Next Big (Local) Thing?

It's harvest season, so why not start right now?


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Image by Kristan Lawson

What's the next big plant-based product — crafted from fresh Northern California fruit — set to be adored at tasting-parties where trendsters compare varietals, finding floral notes here and nutty notes there?

Not wine. Not anymore. And neither tea leaves, coffee beans, nor cacao beans grow here. 

It's slick. It's smooth. It's straw-gold or jade-green or some hue in between.

It's olive oil.  

And it's being made right now from fruit that's being harvested right now in groves such as those maintained near Lodi by the Corto Olive Co., whose oils are not sold retail but to restaurants including Oakland's Flora, Aisle 5, and plank, and which invited local media last week to watch this happening. 

Around the clock until peak-season ends, big machines that are actually beefed-up grape-harvesters rumble up and down the groves, their fingerlike projections knocking olives from branches onto belts, shakers, and buckets as gondolas heap the fruit into trailers, bound for Corto's mill.

It's called high-density vineyard-style olive-harvesting, it's lightyears away from the European method of gathering fallen olives from the ground, and it originated some fourteen years ago in California, establishing this state as the world's new olive hotspot. 

Olive groves now occupy some 40,000 acres  — but that number is expanding exponentially — in Yolo, Tulare, Tehama, Madera, Fresno, El Dorado, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Kings, Kern, Butte, San Joaquin, and several other counties.

At Corto's mill, optical sorters extract those dry, wrinkled olives that farmers call "mummies." Then a cold-pressing process removes juice, aka oil, from the fruit with minimal exposure to oxygen — which, according to Corto's master miller David Garci-Aguirre, "is the main enemy of flavor."

Also in the name of flavor, strange as it might seem, Corto's olives are harvested when they're still green and on the verge of turning yellow or violet, before they're ripe — unlike wine-grapes, and unlike nearly all foreign olives. 

If you wait that long, "they're overripe," Garci-Aguirre said. "The moment you take an olive from a tree, it begins to ferment. And overripe olives can only produce low-grade oil."

Annnnd that's what most of us use: cranking up the rancidity of oil in our homes by keeping it for long spans in translucent bottles, thus welcoming flavor's other arch-enemies: time, heat, and light. 

 

"Most Americans think oils are just this substance that lasts forever, but it's not true," said Garci-Aguirre, a UC Santa Cruz grad who co-invented North America's first mobile olive mill.

"We need to wrap our heads around the idea that oil should be used fresh — so shelf life isn't even an issue. We should always use new oil. The first thing you should look for on a container when buying olive oil is not the expiration date but the harvest date."

Fresh oil just begs to be tasted, Garci-Aguirre said. 

And the East Bay is an oil-expertise capital. 

"At Market Hall Foods, customers are encouraged to ask for tastes and there are always olive-oil samples out," said MHF head buyer and longtime olive-oil educator Linda Sikorski. "Plus, each spring, there usually is the Extra Virgin Olive Oil Festival."

Based in Berkeley, the California Olive Oil Council is the USA's only organization that provides olive-oil grade certification. It also issues tasting guidelines not unlike those used for wine: Swirl the glass, then suck air through your teeth while sipping. (In Italian, this technique is called stripaggio.) 

First note how bitter, pungent, flavorful, and fragrant each oil is. Then seek specific notes such as green apple, green banana, artichoke, mint, tomato leaf — "everything that is grassy and green with aromas of wonderful green vegetables and of the olive itself," said chef Rolando Beramendi, founder of Oakland's Manicaretti Imports and author of the brand-new book Autentico: Cooking Italian the Authentic Way, whose first page depicts an olive tree.

"The oil should be green and spicy, and what is really important is that it should be bitter. Unfortunately, in this country bitter has a bad connotation, a bad rap. In America, we are obsessed with sweetness," Beramendi said.

"This country is buried in sugar, salt, and fat, and without bitter we will end up in a sweet stupor. There is good bitter and bad bitter: What I mean by bad bitter is a rotten, fermented, inedible flavor. Good bitter is like drinking espresso without sugar — that's good! — or like having an amaro after dinner.

"It’s extremely important that we have bitter as we forge ahead to introduce new flavors and ideas to the American palate," he said, and "olive oil ... will set the trend."

And as with wines and coffees, "each high-quality extra-virgin olive oil has a unique terroir and differs in taste from harvest to harvest."

"I would go so far as to say that there are bigger varietal differences between olives than between wine-grapes," Garci-Aguirre avowed. 

Maybe that's because olives — and olive oil — have been consumed for at least as long as wine has. In the many millennia since our Neolithic ancestors operated their primitive olive presses, growers have produced more than 1,500 cultivated varieties, aka cultivars.

Microclimates, soils, and other factors also play roles.

"Olive oil is the only culinary oil that's basically juiced fruit," Garci-Aguirre said. "What you get is whatever dripped out of actual olives. Anyone who's into juicing should realize that extra-virgin olive oil is a juice. So of course flavor matters. Of course sourcing matters. Of course super-freshness matters. 

"Yet the farm-to-table movement has completely overlooked edible oil." 

 

All images © Kristan Lawson 2017

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