Everything You Wanted to Know About California Olive Oil

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Olive oil has terroir? Who knew. Similar to wine, olive oil flavor profile, color, consistency, and tannins are all affected by the climate and soil quality of the region in which it is grown.

To create a status quo for American made olive oil, the California Olive Oil Council was formed in 1992, and aims to create a high standard of olive oil production on American soil. Their mission is to ensure that the products are honest while simultaneously promoting the work of local growers. Why California? This answer comes straight from their website:

With its plentiful sun and dry climate, California is a paradise for olive groves, allowing producers to supply fresh olive oil to California markets so folks can get the optimum flavor and best health benefits from every Seal Certified bottle.

The seal of the COOC helps promote California olive oil producers, growers, and retailers, and they represent 90% of olive oil production in the state of California. At the chic Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, we got to break bread with three different olive oil producers as well as members of the COOC over Reynard chef Sean Reubold’s excellent cooking. The meal, which was served family style, highlighted a different brand of olive oil in each dish.

All of the oils we tasted were under two weeks old, and each possessed its own unique flavor and tasting notes. We were informed of the time sensitive nature of olive oil production –a producer has 24 hours to get the olives from tree to mill or else the flavor begins to rapidly deteriorate. There are only about 40 mills in California, and the COOC helps to make sure growers are able to process their product in time.

Some of the most notable dishes of the evening were reflective of how much we enjoyed the olive oil used to craft them, but sometimes it was just the opposite. At the top of our list was the grilled kohlrabi appetizer. Long, slender chunks of this green root vegetable were paired with challerhocker cheese, a crumbly, unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese, and topped with mache. This dish was paired with Grumpy Goat Olive Oil, produced in Capay Valley, California, about 50 miles north of San Francisco. The thing that most struck us about this dish was that we absolutely loved the kohlrabi prepared in the Grumpy Goat but were not the biggest fans of this oil on its own or with bread. The Grumpy Goat is very tannicl, and has a bit of funk at the finish, which stands up nicely against the strong flavor of the kohlrabi but would overpower a simpler dish.

Our second favorite dish was the duck breast entrée, cooked medium rare and paired with a sweet potato puree, cranberries, and sautéed cabbage. The Enzo Medium Olive Oil is mild, and as its name suggests, a middle of the road oil. Not too light or too strong, it’s the Goldilocks of olive oils, one that compliments this well-cooked fowl. We also had the pleasure of speaking with Enzo’s heir apparent, Vincent Ricchiuti. Enzo oil is made from 100% cold pressed organic olives. The Enzo line includes six different options: Delicate, Medium, Bold, Garlic, Basil, and Meyer Lemon, the last of which is current up for a Good Food award. Enzo’s Medium oil is clean tasting and though mild tastes extraordinary in food.

The Risotto Milanese with Short Rib was dish of note that accurately showcased the craftsmanship of olive oil production. While the decadent nature of this dish is most likely never a tough sell, we were entranced by this brand of olive oil’s incorporation in it. Hailing from Napa Valley and currently on sale at William Sonoma, the Lucero Ascolano Certified EVOO is the winner of a GOLD award, and considering its delectable complexity, we can see why. When first poured out of the bottle, it looks milky and viscous. On the palate were notes of peach and stone fruits, mild tannins, and a surprisingly long finish. Here is an olive oil that is well crafted and indelibly ingratiated in the risotto.
Though it wasn’t our favorite dish, we sampled a scallop crudo with grapefruit, radishes, and chives that showcased the advantages of Arlotta’s unfiltered olive oil. Ardently green and tasting like an olive freshly plucked from a tree, we loved everything about the bright, tangy oil drizzled over the thinly sliced discs of raw scallop.

If we had to pick one, our favorite was a chocolate olive oil tart with cocoa nib and a touch of crème fraiche, which also featured the unfiltered Arlotta Olive Oil. Competing with an olive oil cake that tasted rather un-olivey, this chocolate tart was rich, with traces of ganache, and really played up the advantage of working with unfiltered oil.

The five extra virgin olive oils featured in this dinner were the Enzo, the Arlotta, the Lucerno, the Grumpy Goats, and Seka Hills. Be sure to visit the COOC website for more information should you be interested in purchasing gifts for fellow olive oil or cooking enthusiast friends and family!

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