American food lovers have long taken for granted that only olive oils from the Mediterranean are worth buying preferably with an olive tree, an Italian flag and some words like “authentic cold pressed” on the bottle.
Olives going to the washer and then the pressing mill.
But in the last decade, California producers have mounted a major new effort to bring back the domestic olive oil industry, planting thousands of acres, building new mills and producing oils that can be fresher, purer and cheaper than all but the finest imports.
The California olive oil trade, started by 16th-century Spanish missionaries, was almost dead 10 years ago, except for small-scale producers along the Pacific Coast and in the wine country.
“Many people loved the romance of olive oil,” said Deborah Rogers, an owner of the Olive Press, a mill and orchard in Sonoma, Calif. “But no one could figure out how to make any money at it.”
Less than 2 percent of the olive oil consumed in the United States is produced here. But that figure is nudging upward as companies like California Olive Ranch, Corto Olive and Apollo have produced oils that are priced to compete not only in specialty stores, but in supermarkets. They’re using two powerful tools: intensive farming systems already in wide use around the Mediterranean, and a self-imposed bureaucracy that has tried to set a new domestic standard for purity, just as imported olive oil has come under increased scrutiny.
At the California Olive Ranch north of Sacramento, where last week was the beginning of the annual harvest, most of the trees are less than a decade old. But with 13,000 acres under cultivation, the company is already the largest producer of extra-virgin olive oil in the country.
“These trees have a precocious growth spurt and high oil content,” said Adam Englehardt, the field manager, who comes from a family that has been farming in nearby Artois (that’s AR-toyce, not ar-TWA), for five generations.
As long as the olive oil is reasonably priced and reasonably tasty, should American cooks care where it’s from? There are the usual arguments for buying local food: supporting domestic agriculture and the jobs it creates, reducing fossil-fuel consumption by limiting transport, a fresher product.
“Olive oil is a fresh, live product, and it is at its best at the source and the time of the harvest,” Ms. Rogers said.
Certified extra-virgin olive oils from the European Union are required to have a “best by” date on the label. But labels cannot always be trusted. When it comes to shopping for olive oil, an extra layer of caution is drizzled on.
Tom Mueller, the author of the soon-to-be-published “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” writes that since the time of the Phoenicians, growers around the Mediterranean have dealt with — and in — counterfeit olive oil. And in modern times, cheaper oils are often disguised as extra-virgin olive oil.
“It’s not legal anywhere, but it happens everywhere,” Mr. Mueller said in an interview.
Four years ago, Mr. Mueller, who lives in Liguria, Italy, published a hair-raising article on black market olive oil in the New Yorker that changed the mind-set of every cook who read it.
It described a network of rogue tanker captains and unscrupulous bottlers that reaches from the Mediterranean to Mumbai, Rotterdam and Galveston, Tex., dedicated to doctoring old, inferior and fake oils. They are chemically deodorized, spiked with chlorophyll and beta-carotene to turn them greenish-gold, then labeled with meaningless terms like “cold pressed” or “100 percent pure” and sold as the finest extra virgin.
Such oil is not dangerous to eat. But it lacks the flavor and health-giving properties of true extra virgin, and is certainly not worth the high prices it commands at markets. “I could buy that oil at the Port of Oakland any day of the week for $10 a gallon,” Mr. Englehardt said.
Bulk prices for true extra-virgin oils are around $20 a gallon.
Loopholes in European Union regulations generate another category of deception, according to Mr. Mueller. For example, much of the oil produced in Spain is trucked to Italy, where it is repackaged legally as “Italian” oil.
False labels on imported oil are common at every level of the marketplace but the very top, experts agree. The American trade, much smaller and less prestigious, has not offered the same opportunities for fraud, and has remained relatively clean.
This, Mr. Mueller and others say, has given New World producers the opportunity to stake a claim that they can provide the purest oil.
The International Olive Council, the global governing body based in Madrid, tests oils by checking levels of oleic acid (a healthful fatty acid found in olive oil) and polyphenols (which indicate freshness), and getting the judgment of trained tasters. Last October, the United States Agriculture Department adopted similar standards, but they are voluntary, and so far not a single bottle on the market has gone through the full certification process at the department’s new testing center in Blakely, Ga.
In the absence of federally certified extra virgin, the California Olive Oil Council, a trade group, has created a similar certification process for oils in the state, with special labels granted to those that pass. The council has been helped by the Olive Center, a research facility that opened in 2008 at the University of California, Davis.
Last year, the Olive Center released a surprising study, based on laboratory and sensory testing, that found that 69 percent of imported extra-virgin olive oils — including big brands like Bertolli, Filippo Berio and Carapelli — bought off the shelves of California supermarkets failed to meet international standards. Most likely, the study concluded, many of them were simply not extra-virgin olive oil at all. The study was financed in part by the major California olive oil producers. (Nine of 10 California oils tested passed.)
Partisans of Old World oils say that testing supermarket products proves nothing about the relative quality of imported and domestic oils.
“You can’t decide that all imported oils are suspect and dismiss thousands of years of craftsmanship,” said Nancy Harmon Jenkins, an American expert who farms olives in Tuscany (and who has written for The New York Times).
They also criticize the cultivation and production methods used in California. An acre of high-density olives can contain up to 900 trees; traditional groves hold fewer than 100. Martina Rossi Kenworthy, an importer who buys top-quality oils directly from producers in Italy, said that high-density growing drains the soil of nutrients and changes the trees in ways that affect the flavor of the oil.
But Paul Vossen, an agronomist affiliated with the Olive Center who has advised olive growers in the state for 30 years, called that idea “a bunch of baloney.” He said high-density planting currently works only with certain varieties — arbequina and arbosana from Spain, and koroneiki from Greece — but for those, the practice is no different from other kinds of farming.
In a high-density grove, the trees are tightly pruned so they can be mechanically picked by a harvester that sucks the olives off the branch at the precise moment of ripeness. In traditional groves, the olives are raked or shaken from the trees and gathered up later, a time-consuming and expensive process.
Those who believe in high-density planting say that its rapid harvest actually produces superior oil, free of the over-ripe and damaged fruits that are an inevitable byproduct of the traditional harvest. In a blind tasting by the Dining section (see article), California Olive Ranch oil held its own against top-flight Italian oils, showing a promising balance of golden, buttery smoothness and peppery acidity.
“They can make good oils with high density,” said Ms. Rogers, whose own groves are planted in the traditional manner. “But it remains to be seen if they can make great oils.”
Tasting Olive Oils
ALONG with laboratory analysis, testing olive oil still involves human taste. To learn how the experts do it, the Dining section asked Martina Rossi Kenworthy, an importer, and her colleague Stefano Noceti, a certified master taster in Italy, to guide a blind tasting of extra virgin oils, including some from their warehouse, supermarket brands and California products.
All the oils were dark gold, yielding a nugget of useful information: only freshly pressed oil is green, and it soon turns gold in the bottle, making color a weak indicator of quality. As we tasted — eating bites of tart green apple between oils to cut the richness — Martina and Stefano noted (with pleasure) flavors of artichoke, almond, green tomato and fresh-cut grass, and (with sadness) notes of banana, mushroom and bubble gum.
Even blind, they were able to pick out the most expensive oils (Pianogrillo from Sicily, $34.75, and Vicopisano from Tuscany, $43; all prices are for half-liter bottles). Those had an undeniable “liveliness” — a tingly acidity, balancing out the richness of oil — that made them complex and delicious. They also liked an arbequina oil made by California Olive Ranch, much less costly at $13.99. All those oils had some of the throat-burning quality that reveals the presence of polyphenols, antioxidants that make olive oil healthful. La Mozza, an oil from Mario Batali ($25.80), was healthful enough to cause a panel-wide coughing fit.
My colleague Florence Fabricant was first to say that the other oils were surprisingly bland, if pleasant enough. Filippo Berio ($8.49) fell into this category; so did Olivista from California ($10.99) and San Giuliano Alghero, an inexpensive Italian extra virgin oil ($11.80).
Mr. Noceti said that some oils produced for the American market are purposefully made smooth: we are perceived as timid when it comes to olive oil. And even oils that start out robust and peppery quickly flatten out, especially if stored in clear containers and above 65 degrees.
Over all, personal taste and then freshness are your best guides in the slippery, crowded oil aisles. Extra virgin oils produced in the European Union must state either the year of the harvest or a “best buy” date on the label: two years is considered the longest possible shelf life.
Olive oil is at its peak of flavor when pressed, and — melodramatic, but true — begins to deteriorate as soon as it is bottled.