Localicious: Olive Oil – California’s New Rush For Gold

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Olives were one of the first cultivated crops, and olive oil production dates back thousands of years to the eastern Mediterranean region. Ancient people valued it not only as a culinary accoutrement, but also as medicine and lamp fuel. The Greek poet, Homer, famously referred to olive oil as “liquid gold.”

California’s relationship with olives began in the late 1700’s, with cuttings brought by Spanish missionaries. However, it wasn’t until well after the Gold Rush that farmers developed an interest in the olive as a cash crop.

art-815-loca3Traditional Farming Yields New Gold

Darro Grieco and his wife, Olivia, own the 100-year-old Berkeley Olive Grove in Oroville. At 400 acres, it’s the largest grove of mission olives (the only olive considered indigenous to the Americas) in the world. Yet, the Griecos have eschewed artificial irrigation and other industrial farm practices in favor of traditional organic, sustainable methods. This allows the olive trees to flourish through their natural 600+ year lifespan, and ensures the preservation of the historic property. Grieco says that although his yield is smaller than that of a large hedgerow operation, the use of “dry farming and hand-intensive practices has produced exceptional olive oils.” Year after year, his award-winning extra virgin olive oils prove his point.

Why extra virgin?

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is made simply by crushing olives and extracting the juice. Neither heat nor chemicals (which degrade the oil) are used during the process. Experts agree that only EVOO confers the health benefits associated with olive oil.

How healthy is it?

EVOO contains the “good” (monosaturated) fatty acids, as well as naturally occurring polyphenols. Dr. Christina Caselli, ND, of North Star Naturopathic Medicine in Mount Shasta, says consumption of olive oil “lowers insulin levels, lowers blood pressure, and reduces overall cholesterol levels.” New studies suggest specific phenols may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and destroy cancer cells. Applying olive oil to the skin can be beneficial as well. Caselli says it “can be used as a carrier for essential oils to be used topically,” and that it’s an effective treatment “for cradle cap in infants due to its gentle antimicrobial properties.”   

Finding local gold.

UC Davis lab tests reveal that more than two-thirds of imported store-bought oils labeled as EVOO fail to meet International Olive Council standards. The good news? Most samples of California-produced EVOOs passed the test. When buying an oil, former olive grower Susie Lawing says, “There are all kinds of variations, but the main thing is freshness.” Look for:

  • Dark bottle or tin container. Exposure to heat and light degrades the oil.
  • Harvest date on the label. Olive oil becomes rancid over time, so buy the most recently bottled oil.
  • California Seal Certification means the oil has met the California Olive Oil Council’s stringent requirements. (Visit http://www.cooc.com for a list.)

A cook’s companion, hot or cold.

Café Maddalena, Dunsmuir

Café Maddalena, Dunsmuir

Good EVOO is quite stable under high heat conditions (410 degrees F or more). It can be used for frying, sautéing and baking, with tasty, nutritious results. Chef Brett LaMott, owner of Café Maddalena in Dunsmuir, says, “We cook with extra virgin olive oil at our restaurant, because the flavors come out…it’s good to cook with and very healthy for you.” Grieco agrees, adding that an oil with a high phenol content “preserves the nutritional content of the foods you’re cooking with it.”

Choosing an oil? Keep in mind:

  • Bitter is better. Grieco and other experts say that, due to the high phenol content, the healthiest EVOOs often have a bitter, pungent quality.
  • One olive is not like another. LaMott says each oil has a “terroir” – it “tastes like the soil where it grows.” Two oils made with the same olive variety can have distinct flavors.  
  • Different dishes, different oils. Pair a robust oil with a strong spicy dish, a delicate oil with a light dish.

Another healthy (and delicious) tip: LaMott suggests replacing other fats with olive oil. “It’s far better than putting butter on your bread. Just dip your bread in olive oil.”


Amazing Mayonnaise

From Brett LaMott of Café Maddalena.

In a blender, mix together: 2 farm-fresh egg yolks, 1/4 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. lemon juice, pinch of garlic or a bit of garlic oil.

With the blender on low, add 1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil, drop-by-drop.

In just 5 minutes you’ll have a delicious dip for artichokes, dressing for slaw, or spread for a sandwich.

Note: Raw eggs are made safe by acidifying them with lemon juice or vinegar. Make a fresh batch each time and do not store leftovers.

Mill Tours and Tasting Rooms (most by appointment only)

  • Berkeley Olive Grove, Oroville, (530) 533-1814
  • Butte View Olive Company, Oroville, (530) 534-8320
  • Calolea Olive Oil, Bangor, (530) 749-1240
  • Lodestar Olive Oil, Oroville, (530) 534-6548
  • Lucero Olive Oil, Corning (open daily 9am-6pm), (530) 824-2190
  • Pacific Sun Olive Oil, Gerber, (530) 385-1475

Don’t miss the 26th Annual Corning Olive Festival!

Saturday, August 22, 2015, from 10am-4pm, Woodson City Park in Corning.
Olive pit spitting contest, olive drop, historic tours, fun run, kids’ activities & more.

Ashley Talmadge
About Ashley Talmadge

​Ashley Talmadge has always shared her home with a variety of companion animals. Currently her family includes two opinionated cats and two aquatic frogs. Her two young sons like to think of themselves as "cat mind readers."

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