When food writers first exhorted us to drizzle olive oil hither and yon in the 1980s, the problem wasn't just that drizzle is a silly word, but that the oil wasn't right. The bland, golden olive oils then dominating the market were fine for frying, perfectly good for hummus, but there was very little around that was anywhere near good enough to garnish a newly grilled fish.
Twenty years later, we are only now seeing that sort of quality. Retail outfits such as Whole Foods deserve a measure of credit for stocking not a few, but dozens of top-end Italian, Spanish and Greek oils. However, they are doing it in such an uncomprehending, disconnected way that it's more common to see staff dusting the bottles than selling them.
No, the real enlightenment has come from our farmers. For public understanding to finally stir, we've had to go beyond the bottles to the trees and fruit. It took California ranchers, such as Joeli Yaguda in Paso Robles, planting dozens of new olive groves, laying in shiny new presses and then getting new season oil to us in such a startlingly fresh state. This is now prompting a rethinking of how, when and why to use olive oil.
There's no shame in learning you've been doing it all wrong. Rome didn't learn to drizzle in a day. Plus, like our government, we could have had better intelligence. Back in the 1980s, we were told that the key was to make sure we used "extra-virgin" olive oil from a first pressing. This meant that it had less than 1% oleic acid, and the oil was pressed in the first run of the fruit. It turned out that more than 70% of olive oil on the market is extra virgin, and if olive oil isn't first-pressed, then it's not edible. It's been chemically extracted from spent pulp and will be industrial grade.
Beyond an oil's virgin status, guidance from food writers as to how to choose an edible oil was by no means clear. There are as many styles of olive oil as wine, from mild and gold to fiery and green. Elizabeth David gagged Britain by prescribing pungent green oil be used in mayonnaise, a French sauce best made with corn oil. Across, in the U.S., pundits erred to blandness, giving the impression that one bottle of Bertolli fit all.
Here in California, we don't owe our recent awakening to better food writers, but to the trees. California has one of only five Mediterranean climates suitable for olive production in the world. Add to that, we've got the farmers who listen to chefs.
For years, local oil made from trees imported by the Spanish missionaries has been nutty, golden and, often, too bland for garnishing. So instead of replanting more of the same trees, since 1992, a new wave of farmers from Napa to Ojai have been importing trees from Italy.
This wave of new planting has transformed our experience of olive oil. In the last four years, pungent green oils made from Tuscan varieties such as Frantoio, Pendolino, Lucca, Leccino and Moraiolo have been appearing late every autumn in Southern Californian farmers markets. They disappear from stalls so fast that, for many of us, it's been easier to detect the shift in styles at restaurants.
Shot glass of oil At Campanile and La Terza, olive oils are now sold by the serving, like a shot of whisky, but for your bread basket. To get the best from the oil, my advice is to pass on this option, and wait for the kitchen to show you how to use it. At Campanile, chef-proprietor Mark Peel is using the strong green flavors to transform familiar dishes. Take prosciutto and melon. By lacing it with a strong green oil, and scattering it with mint, he gives the sweet and salty notes of the ham and fruit a succession of strong herbaceous foils.
Over at La Brea Bakery, run by Peel's business partner, Nancy Silverton, the way she uses olive oil is transforming pastries and even ice cream. Her new emphasis is on savory cakes, which results in regular offerings of olive oil scones with rosemary topping.
She has even enlisted olive oil in the dessert menu. In a dish designed for the opening of her friends' new restaurant La Terza, she combined an olive oil cake with an ice cream flavored with oil. The upshot is a unique dessert, whose flavors run the gamut from salty to sweet, and whose overriding flavor is the bright young fruit of olives.
Where garnishing meets cooking is the point at which we discover the sheer force of flavor of these new green, green oils. The way to manage this is, at minimum, to keep a two-oil kitchen. Never be without a good mild marching oil — Santini from Trader Joe's is good. So when you encounter a recipe where the oil stands in for butter, such as Simon Hopkinson's mashed potatoes, use the mild oil for the bulk, then garnish with the strong green stuff. It will save money and build layers of pepper and fruit flavors.
Use the same technique with hummus, smoked eggplant purée and all those unctuous Middle Eastern spreads.
Last year, the new oil went so fast that if you blinked, you missed it. As you tour markets this autumn, be sure not to walk past the Windrose Farm stall with the beans without checking for the oil. It might have Yaguda's new season Pasolivo oil from Paso Robles in the truck. Or watch for the man with the tall blue bottles. That's Asquith from Ojai with some of the best fresh olive oil outside Tuscany.
To find the other California producers soon to be picking and crushing new season olive oil near you, or to buy it over the Web, go to Olive Oil Source (www.oliveoilsource.com) or California Olive Oil Council at (888) 718-9830 or http://www.cooc.com/home.html .
For those hitting the road, producers such as Yaguda welcome farm visits. For more information, contact http://www.willowcreekoliveranch.com/oil.htm or call (805) 227-0186.
Check the freshness When buying oil in L.A. delicatessens and food shops, it's key to check the freshness. Of the California blends that have made the shelves in past years, look for the Frantoio blends made by Roberto Zecca in Mill Valley. Not only are they excellent, but like all California olive oils, they're clearly dated. Fluorescent lights in stores do the oil no favors, so another trick is to pull the bottle from behind the front display model.
Once you get a new season California oil, beware the final pitfall of the drizzle days of the 1980s. No kitchen supplement from that era was complete without a shot of oil and vinegar standing on a window sill or next to a stove. There is no worse place to store oil. Olives are fruit; olive oil is a fruit juice. You might as well leave out your orange juice and butter in the sun. If your oil has a buttery taste, then it's probably rancid.
The ideal place to store olive oil is in a cool dark cabinet, or, in very hot climates, in the refrigerator, though dealing with congealing and condensation is a bore. The art is to buy little, use it often and instead of drizzling, pour with a generous hand.
Total time: 15 minutes
Servings: Makes about three-fourths cup
Note: From "The Zuni Café Cookbook" by Judy Rodgers
1 cup black olives, such as Nicoise or Nyons
1 small garlic clove, peeled
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and pressed dry between towels
2 salt-packed anchovy fillets (optional)
1 teaspoon pastis, such as Pernod or Ricard, or ouzo
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1. Drain and rinse the olives. Roll them dry between clean towels, then pound lightly with a mallet, meat pounder or heavy saucepan. Pick out and discard the pits. You should get about three-fourths cup.
2. Slice the garlic, then pound it in a mortar. By hand or in a processor, chop and combine the olives, garlic, capers and anchovy until you have a crumbly paste. Transfer it to a bowl.
3. Grate and work in about one-half teaspoon orange zest. Add the pastis or ouzo and the olive oil to taste.
4. Squeeze a few drops of orange juice into the tapenade just before serving. (Keeps well for a week or so refrigerated.)
Each tablespoon: 23 calories; 0 protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 2 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 105 mg. sodium. *
Rosemary olive oil cakes
Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes plus freezer time
Servings: 24 small cakes
Note: From Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery, who created this dessert for La Terza restaurant in Los Angeles.
Olive oil ice cream
6 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1 cup whipping cream
3 cups whole milk
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Whisk the yolks and sugar with the whisk attachment of an electric mixer until the batter reaches the ribbon-forming stage, about 1 minute.
2. Place the cream and milk in a large saucepan and bring to a boil, then turn off heat. Stir one-half cup of the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture to temper the eggs. Continue to stir in the remainder of the milk mixture until thoroughly combined.
3. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the mixture lightly coats the back of a spatula or wooden spoon, stirring constantly.
4. Strain the mixture into a metal bowl and place the bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice water. When the mixture is chilled, stir in the olive oil. Pour the mixture, in batches if necessary, into an ice cream maker and process according to the manufacturer's directions. Place in sealed containers and freeze.
Cakes and assembly
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons pastry flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 cups extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons very finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
Olive oil ice cream
Fleur de sel
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Sift the flour, sugar, baking soda and baking powder into a large bowl. Make a deep well in the center. Combine the eggs, milk and 1 1/2 cups olive oil in the well. Whisk the wet ingredients, then gradually start whisking in the dry ingredients. Each time, beat until smooth, then pull in more dry ingredients. When the batter is smooth without any lumps of flour, stir in the lemon zest.
2. Grease one-fourth cup size brioche molds or substitute muffin tins. Spoon 1 teaspoon of the remaining olive oil into each mold or cup. Brush all of the sides and let the residual oil pool in the bottom of each mold or cup.
3. Fill each mold three-fourths full. You will see olive oil sitting around the batter. This is OK. Sprinkle each top with one-fourth teaspoon rosemary. Place the individual molds on a baking sheet or put the muffin tin on a rack in the center of the oven. Bake until dark golden, about 35 minutes.
4. The cakes are easier to unmold when warm. Let the molds cool a little. Give the bottoms a hard bump with a knuckle protected with a towel. Use a small offset spatula or knife to loosen the cakes. 5. For each serving, allow 1 1/2 cakes. Place 1 cake on the plate with rounded side up. Cut another cake in half, then in half again, making quarters. Place 2 quarters beside the whole cake, lying on their side. Place one scoop of ice cream on top of the 2 quarters. Sprinkle a touch of fleur de sel — less than a pinch — on top and serve.
Each serving: 420 calories; 4 grams protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 32 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 96 mg. cholesterol; 117 mg. sodium. *
Olive oil mash
Total time: 30 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6 servings
Note: Adapted from a recipe in "Roast Chicken and Other Stories" by Simon Hopkinson.
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2 cup full fat milk
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 rosemary sprig
1 thyme sprig
1 cup mild-flavored olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon light green olive oil
Cracked black pepper
1. Boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water. Meanwhile, put the milk, garlic, rosemary and thyme in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer, then remove from the heat, cover and leave to infuse.
2. Drain and mash the potatoes using a potato ricer if you have one. Put in a bowl and keep warm.
3. Strain the flavored milk through a fine sieve, add the olive oil and gently reheat in a saucepan.
4. Sir the warm olive oil-milk mixture into the potatoes. Season with salt and white pepper. Garnish with the light green olive oil and sprinkle with cracked black pepper.
Each of 6 servings: 463 calories; 3 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 39 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 3 mg. cholesterol; 209 mg. sodium.