18 Mar

UC Davis launches center to nurture emerging olive oil industry

By Laura Kurtzman,

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the University of California, Davis established a research department that led to the flowering of the California wine industry now, it hopes to do the same for olive oil.

UC Davis olive oil industry centerThe challenges to the emerging industry are significant. They include finding economical ways to produce fine oil, dealing with unscrupulous importers and educating unsophisticated palates.

While California olive oil makers have begun to use fine techniques developed in Europe to capture the pungent taste of fresh olives, the American palate may not be ready for it.

“This is the big challenge for all of us here in California – to expose people to this fresh fruit juice olive oil and not have them gag on it,” said Paul Vossen, a formative figure in the nascent world of California olive oil who is affiliated with the new UC Davis Olive Center.

The center opened in January under the umbrella of the university’s Robert Mondavi Institute, which also houses the campuses’ Department of Viticulture and Enology, the scientific names for grape-growing and wine-making.

That is where UC scientists showed California winemakers how to replant vineyards that had been ripped out during Prohibition and taught them how to make fine wine.

Olives have been growing in California for more than a century, but most of the state’s 600 oil makers are of recent vintage.

Collectively, they produce 500,000 gallons of olive oil each year, a tiny fraction of the 75 million gallons Americans consume.

California’s output is expected to increase fivefold in the next five years, as several thousand acres of “super high density” olive groves come into production using mechanized pickers that vastly speed up the process.

The potential U.S. market for olive oil is huge. America is the fourth largest consumer, after Italy, Spain and Greece. Consumption has doubled in the last decade, but the average American still uses relatively little – about the equivalent of a bottle of wine each year.

The olive center’s executive director, Dan Flynn, said the center will be a resource to delve into essential questions about olive production and consumption. Undergraduate courses may come later.

Contributing faculty include researchers from the UC Davis Medical Center, who are studying the health benefits of antioxidants in olives.

Others already have done work on genetic fingerprinting of olive varieties and how irrigation affects growth.

Researchers also make and sell oil from the 1,500 olive trees on campus and are launching this year’s oils with a party on Wednesday. The proceeds will make up half the olive center’s budget. The rest comes from industry and the university.

Charles Shoemaker, a food scientist who is a co-chairman of the olive center, said a possible topic of research – preventing oxidation, which ruins the taste – could benefit olive oil lovers around the world.

Even in a country with the culinary sophistication of Italy, he said, most of the restaurants he visited were serving rancid or oxidized oils.

“It’s not just a new challenge in California,” Shoemaker said. “It’s a challenge the world needs to take on.”

But the answer, he said, may be as simple as selling the oil in smaller bottles.

Fine olive oil is a relatively recent phenomenon anywhere in the world, said Vossen, who teaches an olive oil tasting seminar to the general public through UC’s extension program. He also helped develop California’s first panel of expert tasters.

While olive oil dates to antiquity, Vossen said truly fine oil only came about in the last few decades, as Europeans revolutionized production with clean, modern techniques.

Stainless steel spinners and decanters replaced the old, smelly mats that had been used to drain oil from paste made of crushed olive pits and meats.

The sped-up process eliminated fermentation, along with odors that had seeped into the mats from farm animals and the fires workers used to warm themselves in mill houses.

The result was an entirely new taste that could be as spicy, peppery and pungent as the olives from which it was made.

“The new olive oil industry of the world is capturing the fresh fruit flavor of the olive,” Vossen said.

But few in this country have learned to appreciate this fresh taste. Just as post-Prohibition Americans happily drank wine of such poor quality it could not be sold today, so do many contemporary Americans make their salad and pasta with olive oil no self-respecting Italian would consume.

Vossen and others say most of what Americans think of as good oil is rancid, fermented or riddled with flaws that consumers would easily detect if their palates were more sophisticated.

In his tasting classes, Vossen teaches how to discern the mellow flavors of oil made from ripe olives, such as nutty, floral, buttery, tropical, banana and spices such as cinnamon.

He also introduces the pungent flavors of oils made from green olives, including those of fresh-cut grass, artichoke or even straw. As his students’ palates grow more complex, he says, they quickly develop an appreciation for bitter green oils, which are rich in antioxidants.

It is a leap he hopes the greater American public will one day, as well.

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2 Responses to “UC Davis launches center to nurture emerging olive oil industry”

  1. Enro the Red Says:

    What are the methods used by the “unscrupulous importers?”

  2. Olives101 Says:

    Hi,

    By mixing Extra Virgin Olive Oil with other oils or even worse:
    http://www.olives101.com/2007/08/06/italy-the-trade-in-adulterated-olive-oil/

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