When the Los Angeles Times reported in July that approximately two-thirds of extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) sold in California grocery stores isn’t so virgin after all, and that the problem comes from imported olive oils, I dashed to my pantry, flung open the door, and sighed. My EVOO bottle was on the list of claims-to-be-extra-virgin-but-don't-believe-it olive oil. The alleged EVOO from Italy in my pantry apparently shacked up with cheaper canola, seed or nut oils—thereby losing any hint of virginity. Shame on my olive oil, and shame on Italy.
Double shame on me. One, the report went on to say, “No such mixing was found in the recent tests of products produced in California…” and, two, the nearby foodie-town-in-training, Paso Robles, CA, is home to over two dozen olive farms that co-habit with the burgeoning world-class local vineyards. Why did I not buy local? I preach it, so my bargain EVOO shopping vs. quality EVOO shopping was about to change.
Last week, I slipped into the 7th Annual Olive Festival in Paso Robles, and it was a voyage into the new world of an ancient food. Mostly family-owned farmers/producers poured samples of their oils for visitors to taste. Vendors supplied bread for dipping—but I watched as the purists went directly for the straight on sipping. Without a clue as to how oils are tasted, I chose the purist route.
“This oil is a blend of arbequina and cerignola,” explained the woman as she poured the golden liquid into a tasting cup and handed it to me. I wondered if I should slam the sample like a tequila shooter, or sip and slosh the oil like I would if tasting fine wine. Meanwhile, she reached for another sampling bottle to pour and noted that “…this is made in the Mission style.” And I’m thinking dirty: Must be extra virgin. By the fourth tasting booth, my belly experienced a hint of what the waters of an oil spill might feel like, and I also discovered that besides Mission style EVOO there are Italian, Spanish and Flavored-style EVOOs.
Feeling as though I had O.D.'d on olive oil and I needed an oil-dispersant, I went on to taste some local wines and even locally made balsamic vinegars. And then I bravely threw myself back into the world of olives.
Growers offered cured olive samplings, along with olive-oil-based cosmetics and toiletries, and some also displayed olive and fig trees for sale.
With arbequina and cerignola now added to my vocabulary, I continued tasting, and my stomach cooperated. Veteran oil tasters judged each sample for aroma (grassy, perfumy, fermented, artichoke, fruity, etc.); found distinction in tastes; discussed the look; and then the feel (pungent, thick, sticky). Growers commented how their orchards were either grown in alkaline soils or sandy loams, on terraces or flat lands, all affecting the olive’s nuances. Aficionados asked if the olives were hand picked, gathered with a special wooden rake, or mechanically harvested—again, each method tweaking the olive’s flavor.
Thrilled with new tastes that included peppery, bitter, rough, and twig, I was even more excited about tasting olive oil ice cream topped with balsamic vinegar. People were crazy for this and so was I. After the pain of a first crush (pun intended), I fell in love with olives. I proudly pinned a button on my shirt that read “Certified Extra Virgin.”
Art and craft booths dotted the festival along with a lavender farm display, salsa and specialty food spread offerings and a stage featuring cooking competitions, tasting seminars and even..I swear on a branch this is true.... olive dancers.
Olive festivals are world-wide. California still has olive festivals set for 2010, including Redwood City Arts and Olive Festival October 3; and the three-month long Sonoma Valley Olive Festival opening December 1, 2010 thru February 2011.
Olive oil and olive samplings are usually free. Expect a fee for wine tasting. Most of all, experience an ancient food in a new way. And learn to appreciate an extra virgin.
Charmaine Coimbra is a docent for Friends of the Elephant Seal. She also edits and writes an environmental blog about our seas, www.Neptune911.wordpress.com, as well as, www.CharmainesMusePallet.wordpress.com
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