After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, UC 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.
The challenges to the emerging industry are significant. They include finding economical ways to produce fine oil, dealing with unscrupulous importers and educating unsophisticated palates.
Although California olive oil makers have begun to use 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, 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 department of viticulture and enology, the scientific names for grape growing and winemaking.
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 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.
Fine olive oil is a relatively recent phenomenon anywhere in the world, said Vossen, who teaches an olive oil tasting seminar through UC’s extension program.
Although olive oil dates to antiquity, Vossen said truly fine oil came about only 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. But few in this country have learned to appreciate this fresh taste. 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 and tropical.
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 develop an appreciation for bitter green oils, which are rich in antioxidants. It is a leap he hopes the American public will take one day as well.