Olive Oil Expertise from a Pro

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It was in an olive grove in Tuscany that Maia Hirschbein had an epiphany that would determine her future. Already a food lover, she had come to Italy in 2012 to study its food, culture and language, and with no other particular direction, she answered an ad asking for help with the olive harvest.

“I took a train, not knowing where I was going, and met some guy who gave me a room and put me to work,” she said. “I’d wake up early and spend the day raking unripe Tuscan olives off the trees.”

The olives were then brought to the mill, a modern production facility, “and I was able to watch the steps of seeing my fruit milled and transformed before my eyes,” Hirschbein said. “In 30 to 40 minutes, it had turned this bright neon green that smelled incredible, and I thought, ‘How have I never tasted this before? It’s so full of life.’ ”

Hirschbein now works as a contractor for California Olive Ranch, a Chico, California-based company whose rectangular-shaped bottles are widely sold. Her job includes advocating for using locally produced olive oil and teaching people how to taste it, what vocabulary to use, how to cook with it, and what to look for when buying it.

“In every country of the world, using a fat of some kind is a way to increase the deliciousness of your food,” she said, “and olive oil tends to be my personal favorite.”

Hirschbein believes that even though she grew up in a food-centric Jewish family, hers was no different than most: “I grew up on rancid and low-quality olive oil, which is so common here in the U.S.,” she said.

Not anymore. Hirschbein now has her mother, Kathy Beitscher, baking her “legendary challah” with olive oil. Originally from La Mesa, California, a suburb of San Diego, Hirschbein, 31, now lives in Oakland. She grew up in a Conservative Jewish family, attending Jewish day school through sixth grade. Her paternal grandparents were Polish Holocaust survivors and her grandmother made all the Jewish classics.

Hirschbein says as a child she wouldn’t eat her grandmother’s chopped liver, but now chopped liver is one of her favorite foods.

She fondly recalls large Shabbat dinners with her grandparents, and her parents growing a lot of produce in their backyard. Cooking meals and cleaning up the kitchen were major ways her family spent time together.

Now that she is an oleologist (olive oil expert), Hirschbein appreciates how olive oil is a “vein that goes through all my interests, from food to Judaism.”

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