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Need a good olive oil at a great price? Think locally-produced, California olive oil

Olive oil tasting of California olive oils at Bestia restaurant in Los Angeles.

Olive oil tasting of California olive oils at Bestia restaurant in Los Angeles.

(Amy Scattergood / Los Angeles Times)

Monica Marin took a big sip from her glass, slurped loudly as she worked the liquid and then started making happy humming sounds. “This one is really beautiful,” she said. “This is really something. This is perfect.”

Marin, head of education at the Wine House in West Los Angeles, wasn’t tasting wine, she was tasting olive oil in the dining room of Bestia, the Italian restaurant in the arts district of downtown L.A.. And you might want to sit down for this — the frequent judge at the International Olive Oil Competition was tasting a California olive oil.

Certainly not all oils from the Golden State are at the level of the one Marin was tasting, from Sonoma County’s Frantoio Grove, but there’s no arguing that the general level has improved enormously in recent years. Even just five years ago California oils had a reputation for being of variable quality, with the few good ones being too expensive compared to the best oils of other countries. That’s no longer the case. A recent tasting of prize-winning oils from California turned up great finds at every price.

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And with the local olive harvest peaking in October and November, a well-chosen bottle of fragrant, freshly pressed oil makes a perfect holiday gift. Looking for a slightly splurge-y stocking stuffer for the cook in your life? At $31.99 for a 375-milliliter bottle, Frantoio Grove is about as expensive as California oils get, but it’s a can’t miss.

On the other hand, if you’ve got cooks on your list who go through olive oil like pasta water, turning them on to a jug of “Everyday California” from California Olive Ranch (about $17.99 for almost 1.5 liters and widely available at local supermarkets) is going to keep you in their happy thoughts for months.

“The industry has grown up,” says Darrell Corti, the owner of Sacramento’s Corti Brothers grocery and a pioneer in introducing America to high-quality olive oils from around the world. “I think they may have figured out that they are part of a very large world and they have to be a little more sensitive about value.”

Paul Vossen, who has provided direction to many of the new oil producers in his role as a University of California agricultural extension agent with a specialty in olives, agrees that the industry is maturing.

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“It’s really been quite a learning experience for some of our producers,” Vossen says. “I think at first they thought we’ll make this and people will beat a path to our door because it’s high quality and it’s from California. I think they’ve learned they had to make a better product and charge for it appropriately or they weren’t going to stay in business for very long.”

Corti compares the current state of the California olive oil industry to the way the state’s wine industry was in the 1990s (he is a member of the California Vintner’s Hall of Fame as well). That’s when winemakers really began coming into their own rather than trying to imitate wines from France.

“When we started getting lots of new olive plantings, people wanted to plant Tuscan varieties because they were prestigious, not because they were the varieties best suited for the area,” Corti says. “It’s exactly like wine when they were planting Cabernet Sauvignon in the Monterey Highlands.” Now, he says, growers are experimenting with olive varieties from southern Italy, Spain and the northern Mediterranean.

Along with discarding some outmoded olive varieties, producers are also beginning to embrace new technology. Though the old stone mill may have a certain rustic charm, too often it can lead to oils that go bad quickly.

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“Most people have figured out you can’t make really good oil using very traditional means,” Corti says. “Good oil has to be made by picking the fruit at the proper time and then using the most modern and efficient technology possible so the oil stays as fresh as possible for as long as possible.

“All of that other stuff has been consigned to history. We are now capable of making better oil than has ever been made.”

Marin agrees. “Ten years ago, to find good California olive oils wasn’t that easy,” she says. “There were only a few to choose from and whatever you found was so expensive. Now they are getting closer in price to good olive oils from Spain and Italy, and they’re getting very close to the same quality as well.”

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Tips to help you choose a good olive oil

For the most part, you can forget all that “cold-pressed” and “extra-virgin” stuff printed on the label of that bottle of olive oil. There are plenty of bad oils that make those claims. Here’s what you really should look for when choosing an oil:

Know what you’re going to use the oil for. The complexities in a great oil will be lost when it’s heated for cooking, so there’s no sense in paying a lot of money for an oil that will be used for sautéeing. On the other hand, a great oil will make a tremendous difference when used to finish a dish, so it’s false economy to scrimp on something that you’ll use by the teaspoon.

Buy directly from the mill over the Internet or from a store that sells a lot of oil so you have the best chance of getting the freshest product.

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Be wary of stores that stock many different oils. They are unlikely to have rapid enough turnover to keep from selling older bottles that may be tired.

Don’t buy just on price. Fine olive oil is an artisanal product and it costs more to make the good stuff.

Choose oils that come in dark bottles. Light is the enemy of oil, as oils in clear glass bottles will oxidize more quickly.

Check the harvest date to make sure you’re getting the most recent pressing. No harvest date? Buy a different oil; there are plenty of options now at every price point that do include that information.

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Store oils tightly sealed and away from heat and light.

Even if it’s a bargain, you might be better skipping the big bottles except for cooking oils. The longer you have an oil, the more likely it is to go rancid.

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7 California olive oils distinguish themselves in an informal tasting by experts

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Here are seven California olive oils of varying intensities and at varying prices from a recent tasting at Bestia restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. Tasters included olive oil judge Monica Marin, Bestia chef Ori Menashe and pastry chef Genevieve Gergis, Bestia sous-chef Michael Priore and the Los Angeles Times’ Amy Scattergood and Russ Parsons. Arranged in order from delicate to robust:

California Olive Ranch, “Everyday California,” California. Delicate intensity. Bright green smell, buttery flavor with some pepper. An outstanding value. About $17.99 for 1.4 liters. Widely available.

Apollo Olive Oil, “Mistral,” Sierra Foothills. Medium intensity. Rich flavor and mouthfeel with a soft bite. It’s fairly vegetal, like green tomato leaves. $19.95 for 375 milliliters. www.apollooliveoil.com

Lucero Manzanillo, Tehama County. Medium intensity. Fruity citrus nose, like orange or lemon zest. Very soft, hint of banana flavor, mellow finish. $15 for 250 milliliters. www.lucerooliveoil.com

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Moon Shadow Grove, “Ascolano,” Butte County. Medium intensity. Herbaceous and grassy, rich feeling in the mouth, very peppery finish. $17 for 250 milliliters. www.moonshadowgrove.com

Pacific Sun, “Proprietor’s Select,” Tehama County. Medium intensity. Unusual oil, tastes of green leaves with strong overtones of mint and peach. It’s buttery and very dense in the mouth. $10 for 250 milliliters. www.pacificsunoliveoil.com

Chacewater Olive Mill, “Tuscan Blend,” Lake County. Robust intensity. Very aromatic with deep vegetal and green almond flavors and a very long, peppery finish. Very pungent. $22 for 375 milliliters. chacewaterwine.com

Frantoio Grove, Sonoma County. Robust intensity. Unanimous choice as the best oil in the tasting. Very bright, fresh aromas and complex flavors that unfold in the mouth. It starts very peppery, very pungent, giving way to almonds and fresh olives and then finishing peppery. $31.99 for 375 milliliters. www.frantoiogrove.com

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food@latimes.com


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