A Taste For Oil 05/13/99
Thursday, May 13, 1999
What''s big, bold and herbaceous? Fruity, with a long finish and hints of pepper?
Here''s a hint: If you''re thinking Cabernet here, guess again. These are just a couple of assessments you might make if you''re dunking and drizzling rather than swirling and sipping. Just as wines must be tasted and sampled in order to evaluate and appreciate, so it goes with olive oil. And, as local olive oil expert Betty Pustarfi will tell you, this is just one of the similarities shared between these prized liquids.
There''s another similarity expressed in the vividly rich term terroir, the single word that encompasses the relationship between the climate, the site and the earth itself where either grapevines or olive trees are planted. It is the terroir that contains the chemistry that will determine both fine wine vintages and prized oils. If you think about it, since olives and grapes thrive in the same type of terroir, it seems only natural that they share the same sanguine characteristics that have been found to lower cholesterol. The exciting news is that, aided by Pustarfi''s expertise, a handful of growers may win a new distinction for Carmel Valley. Not for the superior wines the Valley is known for, but in this case, local olive oil.
Pustarfi, who operates the Pacific Grove-based Simply Olive Oil, a company that specializes in tasting seminars and consulting, found her passion for olive oil during the tastings held at a gourmet shop she co-owned in Capitola. It now culminates in a charter membership in the California Olive Oil Council and an itinerary that takes her around the world, educating consumers and consulting at all levels of the specialty food industry, from producer to distributor to retailer. Just returned from a junket to Australia, she brings back a positive report that the start-up olive oil industry found there may be one solution to a consistent problem in the U.S.--that of getting good, fresh imported oil.
"Oil is not stock-piled--or put down--as is wine, for aging," Pustarfi explains. "One of the most important factors in olive oil production and consumption is its limited shelf life. It begins to deteriorate from the moment the olives are picked. Flavor is at its peak at only 18 months or in some cases up to two years." The good news is that since Australian harvests run opposite to that of the Mediterranean countries, our biggest suppliers, there''s soon to be another option for fresh, high-quality olive oil.
Or, better yet, artisanal quality, extra-virgin olive oil, with the Carmel Valley appellation. That is the dream of C.V. residents Charlotte and Carl Muia. The Muias, who have planted 72 Tuscan variety olive trees on their property, have just come back from Italy where they sampled oils at the huge wine and food festival, Vin Italia, while researching growing and milling techniques.
"In three or four years when our trees start producing, our dream is to have our own Fattoria Muia label," says Charlotte. "There are others in the Valley that share the same interest, but since we''re not divided up into 1,000-acre plots out here, that means that some people just have eight or 10 trees--but at the same time, they''d love to have a quart or a gallon of their own oil. Our hope is to erect a community mill, so that will become possible." For those who''ve known the exquisiteness of artisanal olive oils, tasting is believing. cw