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Green Gold

Long Savored Along the Mediterranean, Olive Oil is Adding Zest to America's Diet
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

(continued from page 3)

California olive oil companies fall into roughly four groups: old-time producers who use traditional Spanish olives, wineries that also make oil, negociants (those who buy fruit or oil from many sources) and newer entrepreneurs who imported saplings and planted on virgin land. Nick Sciabica & Sons of Modesto, founded in 1936, is one of the oldest and largest producers in the state. It makes blends and varietal oils from traditional Spanish olives, including mission, manzanillo, sevillano, ascolano, and nevadillo. Sciabica also makes early- and late-harvest oils from the same tree, something few Mediterranean producers do.

Then there are the winery olive oil makers such as Bruce Cohn, whose Olive Hill Sonoma Estate Oil from French picholine olives--sold in numbered, hand-etched antique green bottles--costs more than one of his highly regarded Cabernet Sauvignons. Lila Jaeger started making oil as a hobby when she found olive trees on the property of her family's Rutherford Hill winery in Napa. Jill and Chris Harrison of Harrison Vineyards gather olives from all over the Napa Valley for their Olio D'Oro blend. Napa and Sonoma olive oils have an obvious cachet, but they represent a very small percentage of California olive oils.

Ken Stutz was an olive oil negociant with his own line of California extra virgin oils who merged his company with some industry veterans and their assets to form Calio Groves, which will make primarily estate oils. Many negociants remain in California but they are small and their oils are not widely available.

Ridgely Evers and Nan McEvoy are in the fourth category. They started from scratch with imported Tuscan trees such as leccino, frantoio, maurino and pendolino. "They're not Tuscan, or even Italian, but sound California oils with European roots," says Stutz, who is also president of the California Olive Oil Council.

His group persuaded the California legislature in 1997 to require that olive oil labeled "California" be made entirely in the state. Oils with Napa or Sonoma designations must contain at least 75 percent of oil from those regions. No national standard exists for olive oil produced in the United States (Texas and Arizona have very small plantings). To fill the vacuum, the California council certifies oils in much the same way as the International Olive Oil Council, and it is having 20 tasters trained under IOOC supervision. (The United States is not a member of the international council.)

With all of the choices on supermarket shelves, one can get light-headed trying to decide which olive oil to buy. The best way to find out which oil you want at home is to employ the same method used for wine tasting. Buy four to six oils--no more or your tastebuds will be overwhelmed. Pour some of each in separate cups or small bowls. Smell each, then taste them using a teaspoon. (Remember, color is not an indicator of quality.) Try some on bread or bruschetta (toasted country bread rubbed with cut garlic). Assertive oils such as Laudemio Frescobaldi and Frantoio accentuate it, while riper, rounder oils such as the Dal Raccolto mellow the garlic. Then try some oils on fish or chicken or grilled vegetables. Gentle oils, like those of Liguria, are generally more appropriate for fish or vegetables. Freshly boiled or baked potatoes are also good vehicles for tasting oils.

Artisanal oils should be used as condiments, sparingly drizzled on pizza or grilled meats just before serving, or tossed with cooked pasta. Heat will destroy the delicacy of these oils, so they should not be used for cooking. Use supermarket oils for cooking and also for salad dressings where the oil is masked by vinegar and mustard, though some salads can be dressed perfectly with just an artisanal oil. Plain "olive oil" is appropriate, even advised, for deep-frying because it gives foods such as potatoes an unusually crisp crust with a gentle olive flavor. Olive oil french fries? Take that, McDonald's!

Sam Gugino is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator. Artisanal Markets

Many artisanal oils can be found in gourmet food shops across the country. However, quite a few can be obtained only by mail order. Here are some reputable mail-order sources:
Dean & DeLuca New York, New York (800) 999-0306
Corti Brothers Sacramento, California (800) 509-3663
The Pasta Shop Oakland, California (510) 547-4005
Strictly Olive Oil Pacific Grove, California (831) 372-6682
Wally's Los Angeles, California (888) 9WALLYS
Zingerman's Delicatessen Ann Arbor, Michigan (888) 636-8162 Bertolli's Smokin' Chief

When William C. Monroe talks about his work, he takes out a cigar to communicate the complexities and special properties of his trade. The president and chief executive officer of Bertolli North America, a subsidiary of the world's largest olive oil company, Monroe sees a synergy between his product and premium cigars that others might not.

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