For most people, quality extra virgin olive oil comes from Italy, Greece and Spain. Few think of California as being a hub for quality extra virgin olive oil but it is.
The olives arrived on California soil in the late eighteenth century when Spanish missionaries planted olives at each of their 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma. A growing industry, olive oil thrived through the 19th century but its growth seemed to stand still during the 20th century, when eventually health conscious Americans discovered the flavor and health benefits of olive oil. Since then the California Olive Oil industry has been flourishing and producing superior quality extra virgin olive oils.
What is extra virgin olive oil? My early understanding was the first press of an olive, but there is more to that – it is free of defects, that the olives when harvested are handled gently and that no chemicals or extreme heat is used during the extraction period.
Are all the olive oils marked extra virgin really extra virgin? There is quite a bit of fraud. Like the Italians who qualify only the best with the DOC designation (Denominazione D’Origine Controllata) so does California with the COOC (California Olive Oil Certification). Most of the Italian DOC designated extra virgin olive oil never makes it to the U. S.
Over 50 varietals of olives are growing in the California sun from Ascolano to Picholine, Manzanilla to Leccino, or Arbequina to Frantoio. At a recent event at Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore's most renown farm-to-table restaurant, the California Olive Oil Council led a tasting of a selection of their extra virgin olive oils – the flavor profiles ranged from buttery and delicate, peppery with strong olive flavor, grassy, fragrant and fruity. Woodberry Kitchen prepared a meal featuring numerous selections of the evoo from hor’s doeuvres to dessert.
The California Olive Oil Council offers up these tips for buying REAL Extra Virgin Olive Oil:
- Check the label!
Does it say extra virgin olive oil? Is there a harvest or milling date in addition to the best use date? Is the harvest date within the past year? Extra virgin oil is best used within 18 months from harvest. However, some bottles are labeled with a 2 or 3 year expiration date, which is why knowing the harvest date is so valuable. Also read the fine print on the back of some bottles: the bottle may be advertised as coming from one specific region - but the fine print on the back may tell you it comes from multiple countries, which makes it impossible to trace the actual harvest date.
- The Bottle Color Matters
Is the bottle dark to cut down on light exposure? Is it on the top shelf exposed to direct light? Light dramatically shortens the shelf life of extra virgin olive oil.
- Look for the COOC Seal
The COOC seal is the consumer's assurance that the olive oil is extra virgin grade, grown in California, and from the most recent harvest. To earn the seal, the olive oil must pass various chemical analysis standards and eb taste tasted by the COOC's highly trained taste panel each harvest season.
- Know Your Retailer
Buy from retailers who know the producers, growers and importers. These experts also know how to care properly for the oil. Ask for a taste. Specialty retailers are generous with sampling, as they want the customers to know what they are buying.
- Buying Online
Check for the harvest date and always buy from the most recent harvest. Ask before you complete the purchase.
- Store it Correctly
Lastly, store extra virgin olive oil away from light, air and heat. Do not store it in the refrigerator - UC Davis Olive Center did a study on this. Use it up once it is open. Rancidity is one of the major culprits - an oil that has been exposed to heat or light or is simply old. So what was once a delicious, fruity, pungent extra virgin olive oil may have been stored improperly, been on a store or home shelves too long, open for too long, or sitting next to the stove.
Learn more at the California Olive Oil Council – www.cooc.com
For a list of other locations: Where to Buy COOC
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