Oil Things Considered

When the roots of a eucalyptus tree in my back yard began destroying nearby hardscape, I had to hire someone with a crane to pull it out. I filled the void with an olive tree — transplanted from another spot in the yard. I lack the incentive to brine the olives, so they end up in the green trash. The extent of my knowledge about olive trees has been limited to the watering and trimming needs of the only fruit bearer I grow but don’t harvest.

I thought, however, that I knew something about olive oil — having used it for years in the kitchen. Then, a few months ago, I read that almost three-quarters of tested samples of top-selling imported extra virgin olive oils in the United States failed International Olive Council standards. I’m sure that I am not the only person who thought Italian EVOO was considered to be superior. I was surprised when I started shopping for olive oil from California that, in many stores, all the olive oil was imported.

Last week, the executive director of the California Olive Oil Council (Patty Darragh), the author of The New American Olive Oil (Fran Gage), two olive oil producers (Rich Matthews of MoonShadow Grove and Ryan Grossman of Enzo Olive Oil) came to La Jolla for an olive oil tasting hosted by We Olive. Co-owner Ruth Mercurio, who sits on the council, is responsible for procuring oil for 14 We Olive locations.

When I sat down on the store’s back patio, I found before me five small, covered plastic containers, the top of each identified by a letter (B, E, A, M and K). The only olive oil tasting I’ve done before is the kind where you dip a small piece of bread in oil — typically an oil flavored with a fruit or herb. That is not how the pros do it. In fact, I learned, the yeast in bread conflicts with the ability to evaluate various characteristics in the oil. Professional tasters, Patty explained, “drink” the oil and between tastes only drink water and maybe take a small bite of a Granny Smith apple.

I seem to recall reading that opera and pop stars who sing on stage night after night drink olive oil to protect their vocal chords. But I typically limit (no doubt a crowd-pleasing approach) my warbling to car trips, house cleaning and birthday celebrations; so I’ve had no reason to consider oil as anything but part of the food equation.

Olive oil tasting is similar to wine tasting in that you swirl, sniff, sip and swallow. What you don’t do is look at the color. Patty showed us the small, cobalt blue tasting glass that the professionals use so that they don’t make any presumptions about an oil based on its appearance. The other differences are that you swirl the oil while it is covered (versus swirling wine to aerate it); you cup the container between your hands to warm it (versus holding a glass by its stem so your hands don't affect the temperature of the wine); and the optimal tasting temperature for oil is 82 degrees, which is much warmer than you want your wine and way, way, way, way, way warmer than you would want your beer (but that's another blog for another time).

After we swirled the first oil and lifted off the lid, Patty asked us to describe the aromas we detected (grass, apple, pepper, etc.). Then she instructed us to take a sip and describe the flavors we detected. This part of the tasting was similar to wine tasting. However, I much prefer swallowing the more liquid wine over the more viscous oil, so I took even tinier sips of the remaining four samples. I am certain it is an acquired taste, though others at the tasting seemed to adapt well to the new experience.

At the conclusion of our five-oil tasting, we were each handed a mimosa. (Note that We Olive also has a wine bar.) But instead of sparkling wine and orange juice, this was We Olive’s signature concoction of sparkling wine with a touch of basil olive oil and peach white balsamic. It was interesting, but I still prefer oil and vinegar with food, as it was used in the accompanying crostini with Fromager d’Affinois and strawberries marinated in oil and white balsamic. 

Over dinner at the walking-distance Herringbone restaurant, I learned how Ruth got into the business. She and her husband were in Paso Robles when he had a phone call and she wandered into the We Olive store to pass the time. When he got off the phone, he joined her and the rest, as they say, is history. Yes, there’s much more to the story than that; I suggest you go to the We Olive store in La Jolla and ask for Ruth if you want the details. And talk to her if you want to open a We Olive franchise. Apparently, business is booming, with a growing appreciation for California olive oil not only here but across the nation — especially, in Austin, Texas (a top-selling We Olive location, Ruth revealed). I also learned a lot more about olive oil sitting next to Rich and his wife, Diane, whose grove is in Oroville.

The takeaway messages I got from the evening are as follows: (1) It’s better to trust California regulations for olive oil than lower import standards; (2) extra virgin olive oil has to meet a series of chemical and sensory standards to be so designated; (3) the COOC seal of certification on the bottle ensures the producer’s oil has been independently analyzed and met the council’s high standards; and (4) I’m probably not suited for the council’s sensory panel.

I subsequently read that there are more than 35,000 acres of olive trees planted in California for the production of oil. It’s good to know, because the tree in my back yard has, over the years, become complacent after seeing its dropped fruit go into the green trash.