17 Dec

Latest oil boom is from olives

California suppliers cash in on burgeoning demand.

By Eric Leach,

Rosemarie Fusano was born into the olive oil business in the 1940s San Fernando Valley, where signs along the highway once proclaimed Sylmar the biggest olive-growing area in the world.

Over the next few decades, the industry in the Valley dried up when cheaper vegetable oils and safflower oil came into vogue. At the time, some doctors even thought olive oil was unhealthy.

Now, olive oil is en vogue like never before in the Golden State, where it is being produced by nearly 400 companies and sold to customers who prize it for its taste and health benefits. And Fusano, 60, is still in the business.

She helps meet the demand at her Fusano California Valley Olive Co. in Paso Robles, and she and other producers compare today’s business in California to the early days of the state’s wine industry.

“Some of the big gourmet magazines are still focused on olive oils from overseas,” she said. “Either they are unaware of what is available in California or there isn’t enough panache.”

U.S. domestic sales of olive oil have increased 20 percent in each of the past five years, and the California olive oil industry has grown almost one-third in acreage in the past two years.

The industry developed in the Valley in the 1800s and at its peak in the first half of the 20th century, Sylmar had about 2,000 acres of olive trees and produced about 50,000 gallons of olive oil a year.

But it was never really the world’s olive-growing capital, and in the 1940s and ’50s there wasn’t even much of a local market for olive oil when Fusano’s family made it from their own trees.

“Most of the buyers were Italians and Greeks who lived back East,” Fusano said, recalling that it was hard to imagine in those days how popular olive oil would become in California today.

In Ventura County, Ojai is the prime olive-growing area, with its warm summers and cool winters. For six years, Ron and Alice Asquith, owners of Ojai Olive Oil Inc., have been producing extra-virgin oil from their 2,500 trees, including some that are 130 years old.

“The Ojai Valley is a perfect place for growing olives,” said Ron Asquith, noting that in the late 1800s, when some of his trees were planted, the oil was made in Ojai on a communal press.

The social interaction at the Sunday farmers markets in Ojai represents one of the greatest pleasures they have found in the olive oil business, the Asquiths said.

“We sell olive oil at the farmers market that we made the week before; people love it,” Alice Asquith said.

She and her husband got a press with new technology from Tuscany in June to reduce oxidation and to change the speed at which the olives are crushed.

“There are more and more people in California getting into olive oil production,” Ron Asquith said. “Growing olives and making olive oil is very trendy.”

Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the olives, contains no refined oil and has a low acidity. And California’s diverse climate helps produce the wide variety of olive oils that are as distinct as the state’s wines, Fusano said.

“Cold-pressed oil is similar to a premium wine,” she said. “In California, there are a lot of boutique producers who are making some really nice oils. More and more wineries are interested in growing olives.”

Rosemarie Fusano’s grandfather, Christopher “Christo” Fusano, came to Los Angeles after he landed at Ellis Island in 1909 and first got a job for the railroad.

When he came through Sylmar, he saw something he was familiar with from Italy, first getting a job picking the olives and then making the oil.

In 1937, he started his own company, C. Fusano & Sons Olive Oil.

Mike Fusano is one of Christo’s sons and Rosemarie’s father, and he still lives with some of his remaining olive trees in Sylmar, attributing his longevity and health to his mother’s Italian cooking.

“We were raised on a Mediterranean diet,” he said. “You eat a lot of vegetables and greens. My mother really knew how to cook the old way. She used olive oil all the time. We still do.

“It makes me happy people are converting to healthy cooking.”

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