America's appetite for olive oil ripens

Locals finally told him that Mission olives should be harvested ripe, not green, for oil.

From his tasting room on the hilly outskirts of Oroville, Calif., Jamie Johannson can hear the workers picking his olives. Even when they are too far away for him to hear their voices, he can still detect the wind-chime-like clamor of them at work.

"There's a musical sound when they move their metal ladders," says Mr. Johannson, founder of Lodestar Farms. Visitors make their way to Johannson's grove throughout the year, drawn by the nation's growing fascination with small farms in general and olive oil in particular. While olive oil has been a staple in other countries for eons – used to cook and flavor food, fuel lamps, and anoint the body – Americans' interest is more recent. Travel to the Mediterranean and a resulting enthusiasm for its cuisine created a buzz for olive oil in the last few decades. Food celebrities proclaimed the virtues of EVO – extra-virgin olive oil, the finest, most flavorful oil produced entirely by physical means (now in centrifuges, not presses), without the use of chemicals or excess heat.

Consumption of olive oil in the United States has risen 272 percent since 1991, according to the International Olive Oil Council. By 2002, Americans were consuming a little over a half liter (about a pint) each year – about what the average Greek uses in a week.

Olive Oil Council. By 2002, Americans were consuming a little more than half a liter (about a pint) each year – what the average Greek uses in a week.

Johannson's 20 acres of grizzled trees are laid out in wide, stately avenues nestled into the Sierra Nevada foothills. The grove was established 80 years ago, when Oroville was the epicenter of the nation's olive industry. The trees' pedigree goes back even further, to the olives planted by Franciscan friars at the missions built along California's coast in the 1700s. Hence the name: Mission olives.

Johannson moved to California in 1993, just as a new crop of growers were getting into the olive oil business. These new olive oil producers decided that Italy was the home of world-class olive oil. So they traveled there to study how Italians planted orchards and made oil.

But when Johannson tried to make oil from his own olives – picked and pressed when they were green, as the Tuscans did – it fell flat. Locals finally set him straight: Missions make the best oil when they're harvested ripe, not green, and Oroville's location in the temperate foothills allowed them to be harvested as late as January. "I started to harvest when the olives were fully black," says Johannson, whose extra-virgin Mission oil has since won awards. "It makes a milder, fruitier oil."

Johannson's golden, late-harvest Mission is at one end of the flavor spectrum. At the other end are the green, spicy Tuscan-style oils and the pungent Koroneiki oils from Greece.

"We're just getting started here," says Paul Vossen, a farm adviser from the University of California. "We're starting to develop a knowledge base to distinguish one kind of olive oil from another, to understand what style goes with what kind of food." He says that every good cook should have several kinds of olive oil on hand, much as they have several kinds of vinegar or cheese.

"Those peppery Tuscan oils are a flavor profile all on their own," says Heidi Insalata Krahling, executive chef and owner of Insalata's in San Anselmo, Calif. "They're great finishing oils for roast peppers and white beans, or on a perfectly grilled piece of fish. But their big flavor can fight with dishes that have a lot of spices. The fruitier oils are really my workhorse oils, especially for sautéing."

Since more than 99 percent of the olive oil sold in the US is imported, most Americans are unfamiliar with California oils. Most of the state's more than 200 olive-oil brands come from artisanal producers. While the California Oil Council notes that sales of such oil have grown 20 percent each year for the past five years, producers either can't afford to ship east or don't need to, as their oil sells quickly at home.

Another Oroville producer hopes to change this. Founded in 1999, the California Olive Ranch (COR) is now the nation's largest producer of olive oil, with 500 acres in production and another 800 planted. Started by Spanish investors, COR employs superhigh density planting, with 670 semidwarf trees per acre, versus the usual 120 large trees. They are planted in what look like long hedges. The fruit is harvested by machine and turned into oil on site in less than three hours. The result is an award-winning oil at supermarket prices, which COR plans to take to the Eastern US in two to three years.

Consumer guide to types of olive oil

Olive oils are characterized by three flavor attributes, determined by the olive's variety and when it was harvested: fruity (an aromatic quality felt in the nose); bitter (felt at the back of the tongue); and pungent (felt in the throat). The three broad flavor categories are:

Robust: Usually green and quite bitter and pungent. These oils are often used to finish foods that already have strong flavors, such as salads of bitter greens, pesto sauce, and bruschetta. Tuscan-style oils fall into this category, as do Coratina oils from southern Italy and Koroneiki oils from Greece and California.

Medium: Moderate in intensity, with strong fruitiness; medium bitterness and pungency. Often used in salad dressings and on pasta, these oils include Picaul oils from Spain and midharvest Mission and Manzanilla oils.

Mild: Light-flavored and very fruity, with only slight bitterness and pungency. These oils are used to flavor delicate foods like poached fish, chicken, eggs, and cheese. They're also used in baking. This category includes late-harvest Mission olive oils, Arbequina oils from Spain and California, and Taggiasca oils from Italy.

Italian sesame cookies

3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup extra-virgin, late-harvest Mission olive oil
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 pound sesame seeds

Sift flour and baking powder together. Rub in butter and oil with fingers until mixture is crumbly. Add sugar, eggs, milk, and vanilla. Mix with hands until dough is smooth. Form cookies by rolling out 1-1/2 teaspoons of dough into a small log. Moisten with water and roll in sesame seeds. Place cookies one inch apart on cookie sheet lined with buttered parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 25 minutes until cookies are firm and golden.

Source: Jeff Anderson, chef at The Rawbar in Chico, Calif.

Picholine olive salsa verde

2 bunches Italian parsley, diced fine
2 cloves garlic, diced fine
2 shallots, diced fine
1/2 cup capers, drained and roughly chopped
20 Picholine olives, pitted and roughly chopped (optional)
4 lemons, zested fine, and juiced (about 1 oz. per lemon)
Salt and pepper to taste (be generous)
2-1/3 to 2-1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil, Tuscan style (see directions)

Put ingredients in a bowl. Add enough olive oil to make the relish spoonable. Great with grilled meats, fish, vegetables, and tomatoes.

Source: Heidi Insalata Krahling, chef at Insalata's in San Anselmo, Calif.

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