Tuesday, Oct. 21, was spent tasting California’s best olive oils at a workshop hosted by Maia Hirschbein, olive oil educator from California Olive Ranch. Maia was an engaging speaker who has spent years learning about this fruit. In fact part of her Master’s research in Food Culture and Communications (University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont Italy) involved a comprehensive study of California olive oil. She is committed to demystify and educate about the green gold. This is a quick overview of her presentation. The olive producers in attendance were Farmer Al Courchesne from Frog Hollow Farm and Jonathan Sciabica from Sciabica & Sons.
We started the evening with this comment from Maia — “The olive is the fruit of the olive tree, olive oil is a fruit juice.” From there, we reviewed the history of olive production in California, describing location of major olive groves in the valleys of central California where the tree is best suited to a dry Mediterranean climate. Next, olive varieties were discussed such as Mission, the original variety cultivated in California since Spanish colonization and other commercial varieties like Sevillano, Manzanillo and Arbosana. As we discovered there is now a much greater diversity of olives in California than in the past which means more interesting oils available to the consumer. The harvest takes place from about mid-September to the end of November either manually (such as done at Frog Hollow) or by mechanical harvesters. Depending on the variety, olives may be picked green, green-purple or entirely purple to black and blended with other varieties. Good coordination is required to ensure rapid transport to the mill after harvesting to quickly extract the oil. That is, the quality and taste of the oil is not o0nly dependent on olive variety and ripeness but on other factors such as the terroir (soil and weather conditions), method of extraction, storage and the style of the producer. After all extra virgin oil is simply “pressed fruit juice without additives” so therefore must be handled with a healthy respect.
With this introduction over, the tasting began. We were given 1oz servings of six different oils, California Olive Ranch, Bariani, Frog Hollow, Sciabica and McEvoy with the addition of mystery oil. Farmer Al provided two samples from his orchard, an early harvest fresh pressed that day and late harvest olive oil for our tasting. In between tastes, we cleansed the palate with sparkling water. Maia instructed us how to warm the cup in our hand while covering the top with the other hand and swirling gently to release the aromas. The first step in tasting is to smell the oil and note the aroma. Descriptions may be fruity, nutty and herbaceous. The next step is to take a slurp and inhale the oil. This allows the oil to be sprayed across the mouth and on the tongue, releasing more aromas. Other detailed descriptors can be used such as avocado, unripe banana etc. Lastly the oil is swallowed and the taste is noted in the back of the throat, peppery and pungent are some descriptors here. Maia provided an Olive Oil Tasting Wheel that we used as a guide. In general, the greener the olive the more pungent and peppery at the back of the throat along with varying bitterness in the mouth. Our mystery oil was quite different from the rest of the pack starting with its “winey” scent, it carried rancid notes on the tongue after swallowing, quite unpleasant. The key question to ask yourself is, do you enjoy the taste of the oil, does it appeal to your tastebuds?
We then paired these oils with foods such as cooked beet greens, cooked beets, diced tomatoes, fromage blanc and raw pea shoots and let our taste buds do the talking. Every oil with its unique flavor profile had a different effect on the flavors of each dish. I particularly enjoyed Frog Hollow oil on the fromage blanc - the cheese seemed to jump and become ever so sweet and other tasters had the same experience. The tomatoes with salt welcomed almost any oil. As for the beet greens, cooked beets and pea shoots, those foods tasted best paired with a robust olio Nuevo.
After doing this guided olive oil tasting tour, I have learned that we have an incredible and delicious array of local California olive oils to choose from. I no longer fear buying my next bottle of oil because I’m unsure whether or not it will please me. I now know how to appreciate and savor the oil, how to store (in the dark, away from heat) and how to buy the freshest oil based on the bottled harvest date all important factors to enhance your olive oil experience.
In fact, I feel I can better appreciate olive oil more than ever and look forward to not only pairing with foods but doing more baking, cooking and even frying with my oil. But the big question is, will I have enough Frog Hollow Olive Oil to last through the winter? I hope so.
Dr. Foodie, Guest blogger.