The Lovely Olive
It's good lookin' and good for you.
Thursday, October 9, 2003
Photo: Striking Oil: Betty Pustarfi shows off her wares.
Oenophiles do it: They judiciously swirl and sip and contemplate all that the fruit of the vine imparts to the palate. But there''s another fruit that''s beginning to get its deserved share of attention--the olive. And while olive oil tastings won''t ever be as big a draw as wine tastings, they''re definitely a new fixture on the gourmet circuit.
Olive oil aficionados know that a proper tasting requires a long, exaggerated slurp. It''s recognized as the retro nasal effect, so what might be considered rude behavior around a bowl of minestrone is part of the territory when you''re sucking wind and rolling extra virgin liquid gold around your mouth. Slurping air through the oil onto your tongue in a boisterous manner facilitates getting the flavor inside your nose, rather than outside, and that''s where olfactory magic distinguishes the exceptional from the so-so. So, for the growing numbers of folks involved in the burgeoning olive industry, slurping is serious business.
We''ve come to like olive oil so much in this country that we''re consuming 50 million gallons of the stuff per year, an increased demand of 88 percent over the last few years. No doubt the highly lauded health benefits have rallied consumption; numerous studies of the "Mediterranean diet" make a pretty convincing case for its role in promoting longevity. Simply put, eating like a Cretan--a diet heavy on fish, fruit, vegetables and olive oil--has been proven to lower the risk of heart disease.
By replacing saturated fats like butter with the monounsaturated olive oil, the ratio of good cholesterol--HDL, or high-density lipoprotein--to bad cholesterol--LDL, or low-density lipoprotein--is improved. That translates into keeping arteries unclogged. It''s the peppery bite you might notice in the back of your throat as you slurp that delivers this bonus, signaling the presence of antioxidants and polyphenols, the chemical components and fatty acids that are also credited with packing a whammy of antioxidants that may protect against some cancers. Not found in any other fruit or vegetable, this bitter component specific to olives is known as oleuropein, the polyphenol powerhouse that makes "extra virgin" olive oil considered to be the healthiest of all oils.
Pebble Beach resident Betty Pustarfi is the founder of Strictly Olive Oil, a local company that specializes in tastings, seminars and consulting in premium, estate-bottled extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegar. Talk to any olive grower or culinary retailer, and you''ll hear Betty''s name. As she explains it, "extra virgin" is the highest grade of olive oil, a classification given to oils with acidity levels of 1 percent or lower. The lower the acidic level, the better the taste and the longer the shelf life. That''s the first requirement.
Then, she continues, the oil "must pass the taste/aroma test of certified tasters." The International Olive Oil Council sets standards and monitors compliance for all European Community oil-producing nations. The United States, however, is not a member nation, so labeling of olive oils in this country is monitored only on a volunteer basis by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC). "The problem is that if your olive oil is labeled in the US, it can be called anything you want," Pustarfi says. "You can call it ''triple virgin'' if you want to."
Unfortunately, olive oil importers have effectively blocked the passage of more meaningful labeling than the "fancy" and "choice" grades recognized by the USDA. Currently, domestic importers of European oil can legally label chemically extracted pomace oil (see below) as "extra virgin." The COOC is attempting to rectify this situation by issuing a seal to domestically produced oils that achieve internationally recognized Extra Virgin standards for quality.
The best way to know what''s in the bottle, according to Pustarfi, is to obtain your oil from a knowledgable, reputable merchant who knows the producer, harvest date, and yearly crop evaluation and who believes in testing the wares. Regarded as a pioneer of comparative tastings and well known at area venues like Bountiful Basket in Carmel and Jones & Bones in Capitola, Pustarfi promotes consumer education via the most direct possible means: sampling, slurping, and dipping into the product.
"It''s the same thing if you''re tasting olive oil or anything else," she explains. "You evaluate the established standards for quality, and then you decide [according to] your own preference of style. It''s very subjective. No two oils are the same and each will vary from season to season, just like wine, ranging from grassy to fruity to nutty, and from fluid to viscous.
"Once you''ve experienced a wide range, then it''s up to you to decide how to use them. The more delicate oils are best used raw, in salads or for dipping or drizzling and the more robust, fruity oils will stand up to modest amounts of heat and add flavor of their own in cooking."
Pustarfi points out that a very important factor to consider in evaluating a particular olive oil is its harvest date. "The shelf life of olive oil is from one year to eighteen months from harvest," she says. "That''s when it''s at its peak flavor, assuming that it hasn''t been subjected to its enemies--heat, light and air."
While less than one percent of olive oil consumed in the US is produced domestically, 99 percent of that amount comes from California, including Monterey County.
The Carmel Valley Olive Company proudly puts its COOC-Certified Extra Virgin label on 100 liters a year. When company owners Alfred and Kathy Herbermann purchased the land for their olive grove in 1998, they were attracted not only to the beauty of Carmel Valley, but also to the romance and lore of the olive itself.
Photo: Rare Fruit: The Herbermanns grow their own in Carmel Valley.
After all, it''s not every agricultural product that dates back 6,000 years, is mentioned in four books of the Bible and the Koran, and has its own mythology. According to the ancient Greeks, the goddess Athena brought the olive to Earth as a gift that would mean light, heat, food, medicine and perfume. It was the Franciscans who brought what would become known as "mission" olives to California, with many of the trees that were planted outlasting the missions themselves.
When the Herbermanns left their careers in high-tech auto industry robotics back in Michigan, says Kathy, they were looking for "a slower paced life." Originally from the Bay Area, Kathy says she first had a vineyard in mind. She and her husband then made the acquaintance of "The Olive Man" in Copperopolis, up in the Sierra foothills, a prominent olive promoter in the business of locating and harvesting the Mission and Manzanillo olives from these same historic old trees, many of which dated back to the early California friars. He convinced the Herbermanns that "olives are simpler than grapes," Kathy recalls, and the couple opted to follow his advice.
They later met Betty Pustarfi, who advised them to get in touch with the COOC, which was sponsoring a trip to Spain to explore olive cultivation. The Herbermanns went, and returned with some serious homework. After preparing their soil for one year and laying out irrigation, by February of 2000 they were ready for their trees.
"We imported Arbequina trees, a precocious variety that fruits early, with soft, small olives and a high oil content," says Kathy. "We picked up 500 cuttings in Marysville, after a quarantine to ensure that they were free of disease and set them out on our back deck. That night it hailed, so immediately we had to start building a greenhouse to protect them until spring."
By that June, the Herbermann''s 15-inch cuttings were three feet tall. The couple planted them in the soil, built a barn, and soon the first bucketful of Kalamata, Picholine, Picual, Liccino and Manzanillo olives were ready to be picked. Last December was their first real harvest, an endeavor that required the willing hands of many good friends.
Even though the cost of real estate and labor hereabouts makes it impossible to compete financially with lower-priced imported olive oils, California appellation oils are well able to compete when it comes to quality. And Carmel Valley growers like the Herbermanns and the Bryants of Sandy Creek Ranch and the Muias of Fattoria Muia have all made that commitment with the orchards they''ve put in.
For now, the Herbermanns must transport their olives to Mill Valley for crushing but Betty Pustarfi would like to see the Central Coast olive growers and olive oil producers create a central mill cooperative, like those built by small towns in the Mediterranean basin.
"The industry in California is very much in its infancy," says Kathy. "But here where we''re open to so many types of foods, we''re really in a position to explore and have fun with the possibilities. And the olives are keeping us healthy. So much of our life [used to be] spent indoors. We''ve been able to step back and really put a value on this lifestyle. So, the olives are really taking care of us."
Carmel Valley Olive Company oils are sold at Clementine''s Kitchen, The Bountiful Basket, Cachagua Community Market and the Wild Goose Cafe; Betty Pustarfi will conduct a Unique Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar tasting at Whole Foods Salud! Classroom (next to Whole Foods Market in Del Monte Center, Monterey) on Monday, Oct. 13 from 6:30-8:30pm.
Fun With Olives
Oil Cured Greek Style Olives
The best choice of olive is mature, dark red to black Greek style olives, like the Mission variety. Smaller ones work best, since larger ones tend to get soft.
Cover the bottom of a wooden box with burlap and weigh out one pound of salt for each two pounds of olives. Mix well. Pour a layer of salt over the olives to a depth of one inch and place the box where the brine that will form won''t harm the floor surface below.
After one week, pour the mixture into another box, stirring well. Repeat this same process every three days, usually for 30 to 35 days, until the olives are cured. Sift out most of the salt through a screen. Briefly immerse in boiling water, drain and dry overnight. Then, using one pound of salt for each ten pounds of olives, mix and store in a cool place, either refrigerating or freezing until used.
Finely chop Kalamata olives with capers, lemon juice, cracked black pepper and anchovies to taste, adding extra virgin olive oil to bring to consistency. Use with crackers as a dip or as a flavorful sandwich spread.
Flavored Olive Oils
Herbs lend themselves nicely to flavoring olive oil. But take care if you''re using garlic, lemon peel, fresh peppers or even fresh herbs. The oil won''t support bacterial growth, but the water content of all these additions will. So, either combine the oil with the fresh ingredients and keep refrigerated for use within one week, or dry ingredients like lemon rind and fresh rosemary and thyme before adding to the oil.
Know Your Olive Oil
A low cost, cheap refined oil mixed with flavorful virgin oils, used for frying.
Refined or "Pure" Olive Oil
Olive oil that is refined to eliminate taste defects, used in cooking and frying.
Olive Pomace Oil
Olive pomace oil is obtained by treating olive pomace (pulp) with organic solvents and refined and blended with virgin olive oils. Frequently bought in bulk and used in the food industry. Generally of poor overall quality, with some recent health concerns being raised.
Virgin Olive Oils
Derived only from the fruit of the olive tree, through solely mechanical or other physical means which do not alter the oil in any way. It has not undergone any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtering. It excludes oils obtained by the use of solvents.
Virgin olive oils can have the following designations and classifications depending on their taste and aroma and the degree of acidity:
Virgin olive oil with an absolutely impeccable taste and aroma; fruity; the acidity, expressed in oleic acid, may not exceed 1%. Best used on salads, added at the table to soups and stews and as a sauce for dipping.
Virgin Olive Oil
Perfect flavor and odor, with maximum acidity of 2%. Best used in salad dressings.