Wednesday, September 21, 2016

All About Olive Oil

One nice thing about my little wine adventure is occasionally being asked to do samples of other gastronomically-themed items. Restaurants, decanters, wine chillers – these have all been brought under my umbrella. Today brings a new one – high-end olive oil.

The good folks at Ancient Olive Trees asked me to sample some of their artisanal olive oil. As anyone who’s spent any time poking around my writing knows – the Sweet Partner in Crime and I cook quite a bit, and olive oil is a staple in our kitchen.

Since Rachel Ray softly cooed about EVOO, the use of olive oil in many American kitchens exploded. American consumers go through about 80 million gallons of olive oil per year, only about 2% of which is actually produced in the United States. The U.S. has been steadily increasing domestic production – both among large, factory farmed oils and smaller producers like Ancient Olive Trees, which is headquartered in California.

Olive trees need temperate-to-warm climates to thrive. Olive oil is currently produced in California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Oregon and Hawaii. (I can attest to the Arizona production. When I was in graduate school out there, I discovered that the blooming of olive trees gives me hay fever something awful.) Most oils come from olives harvested and pressed when they’re green.

As you know, there are different classifications of olive oil. Most of the world uses a system based on guidelines set by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC). The U.S. uses a USDA classification which predates the IOOC. (As American olive oil production grows, there is some movement towards joining the IOOC standards.) Either way, there are three basic varieties of edible oils: extra virgin, virgin, and standard olive oil.

Now, if you’re like me and have the sense of humor of an average 12-year-old, you’ve snickered at the notion of anything being “extra virgin.” The nomenclature doesn’t have anything to do with the quick pressing of the olives or the dating habits of the trees. Instead, the chemical composition, processing, and flavor are what creates the distinction among the various types.
Olive trees in Greece
Extra virgin and virgin olive oils are created from the first pressing of the olives, which removes about 90% of the olive juice. These oils can have no further refining or processing after pressing. The backbone of the definition is the amount of oleic acid present in the oil. The less acid, the better. The premium extra-virgin oils have less than .225% oleic acid. The cutoff for extra-virgin in the U.S. is 1%. As the acidity level increases, we move through the various “virgin” categories, until we reach “semi-fine virgin oil.” We rarely see stand-alone oils considered “virgin” in the U.S.

Once the acid level gets above 3.3%, or there are flaws in color, flavor, or aroma which render the oil “unfit for human consumption” – these oils are generally refined with heat, chemicals, and or filtration. The result is a nearly colorless, flavorless oil. They are then generally blended with one of the aforementioned virgin olive oils to impart a little flavor. These are the standard “olive oils” you see for cooking or packing food. There is also “pomace oil” made from paste left over after pressing and refining.

One culinary note: If you’re really into dressing, drizzling, or dipping, the flavors of an extra-virgin oil can be a real enhancement. However, actually cooking with extra-virgin olive oil is really a bit of a waste. While there are some inexpensive extra-virgin oils which might be considered “dual use,” what sets extra-virgin oil apart from regular olive oils is the subtlety of flavor. Heating an extra-virgin olive oil to its smoking point denatures the flavor compounds, rendering it little different from regular olive oil. For the stove, regular olive oil is a superior choice.

This brings us to our Ancient Olive Trees sample. We tried a side-by-side-by-side comparison of the AOT oil alongside a store-brand extra-virgin oil and an extra-virgin oil from Hawkes in Sonoma.

The differences were pretty striking, especially between the two “artisanal” oils and the store-brand stuff. The store brand stuff tasted like…well…oil. There was an olive flavor, but it didn’t have a great deal of complexity. The Ancient Olive Trees oil had a sweeter, lively flavor, with a little bit of an antioxidant zing in the back of the throat. The finish was smooth, somewhat fruity, and tasted a bit of hazelnut. The Hawkes oil was stronger and spicier, with an almost peppery note at the finish. I preferred the Hawkes on its own, followed closely by the AOT.
Mmm...Caprese salad...
With food, we had some farm-fresh tomatoes from the farmshare, so with some of our garden basil, we put together a nice Caprese salad for lunch. More specifically, we did a couple of small Capreses. The AOT oil was the winner among the three for a simple preparation like this – as it  had enough zestiness to make the olive oil a distinct player in the flavor, but it didn’t overwhelm the tomatoes, as the Hawkes did a bit.

There is, of course, the question of price. The high end extra virgin oils can be pricey. Ancient Olive Trees sells a 375ml bottle of their olive oil for $25 + $5 shipping, so it’s not really inexpensive. You can get a gallon can of the “dual use” store brand stuff for the same price, which doesn’t have the same breadth and depth of flavor.

If you think of olive oil as more of a condiment – if you’re a compulsive drizzler, dipper, or dresser – then having something around that’s a bit more high-end might be a nice bit of culinary pampering. Most oils of this quality will start at $20-30, so this would be a good option if you’d like to explore the world of oil. If all you’re doing is glugging it in a pan – you have better options.

As an aside, Ancient Olive Trees also does sell established olive trees. You can grow your own – but only if you live in hardiness zones 9 through 11, which means that you’re getting long, hot summers and temperate winters. Not going to be raising many anywhere near the Ohio river, but if you’re one of my far-flung readers and you’re looking for some new outdoor décor, just an option…

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