Tuesday, June 8, 2010

California Olive Oil

The first article posted to The Corvallis Epicurean described our experience with a California olive oil, the organic extra virgin oil from B R Cohn. My motivation for trying this was due to reading an article which revealed that a lot of imported olive oil, particularly those bottled in Italy, may not even be olive oil.

We were quite pleased with the B R Cohn, and have gone through a couple of bottles of it, but at $15 for a 375ml bottle (equivalent to $40 per liter), it's a bit pricey.

Since posting that article I've been making an effort to educate myself on the subject. Here's a few key points:
  • With olive oil, the fresher the better. Both the flavor and antioxidant value are at their peak within the first six months of harvest/pressing. Less than a year old is still good, but over the course of the second year the oil will degrade significantly.
  • Because of their lower acidity, extra-virgin oils tend to last a little longer.
  • The enemies of olive oil are light, heat and air. It should be in bottles of opaque or colored glass (brown is better than green) or metal. Once you get it home store it in your refrigerator; it will turn cloudy but will revert to clear after reaching room temperature. After opening a bottle, try to finish it within two months.
  • If you want to buy imported oil, look for estate bottlings. These should have the harvest date printed somewhere on the label. Estate oils, however, may cost more than you want to spend on an everyday oil.
With the estate bottled imported oils, you may find that many of them are too old; it takes a long time for them to find their way to the store shelf, and they may have spent time in a warm ship's hold or hot warehouse.

Which leads us back to California oil. If you still aren't convinced, I'll offer two more reasons:

For the conservatives: You want to keep your money in the USA, don't you? Purchase products made in the USA, by companies operating in the USA, employing workers who are citizens of the USA? (I'm sure at least some of them are).

For the liberals: You want to buy local, don't you? Minimize the carbon footprint and all that, right? Well, California is as local as you're going to get, given that efforts to produce olive oil in Oregon have not been spectacularly successful.

Although a relatively young industry, California oil producers are characterized by that same competitive spirit that drove American winemakers and beer brewers to create products that are the peer of the best imports. Oils from Apollo, Pasolivo, Stella Cadente and California Olive Ranch have more than held their own against imported estate oils in international competitions. This last mentioned company is the biggest domestic producer, and in addition to their gourmet bottlings (such as the Arbequina that was the top pick in a comparison published in the September issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine), they offer an "everyday" oil priced at $10.49/500ml (which is $20.98 per liter).

Another good everyday oil is made by Bariani, a family-owned company whose certified organic oil is made using traditional methods. It's a little cloudy, being unfiltered, but appearance is, after all, less important than aroma and flavor.

Armed with all this new knowledge, last week I dropped by First Alternative Food Coop (the one on SW 3rd) to see if they might have any of these. At first glance things seemed promising; they had several different California oils, including the highly regarded Apollo. Unfortunately, closer inspection revealed that nearly all of them were from the 2008 harvest or earlier, meaning they were way past their prime.

There was one exception, that being a good supply of Bariani, all of it being from the 2009 harvest (there was a single liter bottle from 2008). The 500ml bottles were priced at $12.39 and the liter bottles at $22.99. I bought one of the 500ml bottles, and we tried it when I got home. Although lacking the intense olive character of the B R Cohn, it was nevertheless very fresh and clean, and we'll be using it as our everyday oil.

Fortunately all of these producers sell direct (via their web sites), and we plan to order some soon (before the weather turns hot). I expect we'll start with the Apollo "Mistral" and the California Olive Ranch "Arbequina". As soon as those come in you can be sure I'll post our impressions here.

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