Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tastings | California Olive Ranch

After reading this article in The New York Times about how olive oils in California are now rivaling and challenging ones produced in Europe, Lisa thought it would be fun for the two of us to have a tasting of olive oils (similarly to a wine tasting). One of the California olive oil producers cited in the article was California Olive Ranch, located north of Sacremento with 13,000 acres under cultivation, making it the largest producer of extra-virgin olive oil in the country.

So Lisa ordered three different kinds of olive oil directly from California Olive Ranch's online shop for our informal "tasting" of oils -- Arbequina extra virgin olive oil, Limited Reserve (first oil of harvest) extra virgin olive oil, and Arbosana extra virgin olive oil. Arbequina and Arbosana are different types of olive trees while the Limited Reserve is the first oil of harvest season , i.e., first cold press. This means that the fruit of the olive was crushed/pressed exactly once (thus, first press). Cold refers to the temperature range of the fruit at the time it is crushed -- basically that it is not heated over a certain temperature during processing, so that the extraction retains more nutrients and undergoes less degradation, ensuring high purity and concentration. First cold press is very similar the wine-making term, free-run juice (i.e., the juice that falls from the grape just from the weight of all the grapes on each other).

Before we began our tasting, Lisa found a handy guide from California Olive Ranch, suggesting we use the "four S's" for tasting olive oil (again, very similar to wine tasting): swirl, smell, slurp, and swallow. First each tasting, we poured the olive oil into a wine glass. A colorless glass is best because, surprisingly, color identification is not part of the tasting process. It is a perpetuated myth that color influences the quality of an olive oil. Using a colorless glass helps to avoid a "color bias." Since all I had were transparent ones, we just use those. Next, we cupped the bottom of the glass in one hand to "warm" the oil, covering the top with the other hand and swirl gently to release aromas.

Once thoroughly swirled, we brought the glasses to our nose and smelled, taking note of aromas. We decided it would be best to cover the glass partially to isolate the smells for a better olfactory experience. After thoroughly noting the aromas, we took a slurp, touching our tongues to the back of our teeth, inhaling. This allows for the oil to spread around in your mouth, helping to release the inherent flavors of the olive oil. Finally, after taking in the gustatory experience in our mouths, we swallowed the oil, slowly, taking note again of any flavors experienced.

We also made sure to note that different factors affect the aroma, taste, and consistency of the oil per the tasting guide. Just like different grapes make different wine, different kinds of olives make distinct types of olive oil. As olives are grown on trees, they are also impacted by terroir, i.e., its climate, soil, and environment. Harvest timing has a profound impact as well. Earlier harvests tend to have "grassier" flavors, while later harvests yield more "buttery" notes. The lead time between harvest and milling is a part of this as well -- the shorter the lead time, the more likely the oil will have a fresher flavor. Another parallel to wine is storage conditions -- any exposure to heat, light, or oxygen will negatively impact the taste of said olive oil.

{1} We began our tasting with the Limited Reserve EVOO (center). Upon swirling and smelling, we got a surprising solid whiff reminiscent of Play-Doh, followed by a strong scent of an olive pit. Our first slurp gave way to a thick consistency with a grassy finish as the oil glided like lightly softened butter over our palates followed by a burst of intensity. This wasn't much of a surprise as an earlier harvest tends to yield such results. Lisa swallowed too big of a gulp, resulting in a pungent biting sensation in her throat, so when tasting a first cold press olive oil like the Limited Reserve, slow and small sips are the way to go. Anyway, if you want a true, almost pure olive oil, any first cold press is the way to go. For me, it was a little bit too intense just by itself. It would have definitely been more to my liking if it was paired with something besides standalone in a wine glass.

{2} We followed the Limited Reserve with the Arbosana extra virgin olive oil. Typically, the Arbosana olive tree is small (like the Arbequina, which we tasted next) and tends to yield a more “robust” oil, which produces a “delicate” EVOO, leading to a more peppery, or pungent, taste. Noting that, we found this one was much milder in smell (just olives here) and in taste -- it was a lot softer on the palate and not as harsh as the Limited Reserve. The texture was also not as viscous either, and the taste reminded us of vegetables -- for me, it was specifically the ingredients for a caprese salad (probably because it is usually drizzled in olive oil).

{3} Our tasting ended with the Arbequina extra virgin olive oil. The Arbequina olive tree produces a dark brown fruit that is highly aromatic, small, and symmetrical. This variety of olive is very productive and enters early into production (beginning of November); however, the fruit does not ripen simultaneously, and its crop is costly due to its small fruiting size. As such, it is not very well suited to mechanical harvesting due to low weight of oil and branch-heaviness, making it a high performer in manual harvesting. Lastly, the Arbequina variety also has one of the highest concentrations of oil (in fact, these olives are mostly used for olive oil production) and has a short shelf-life. With that in mind, the Arbequina had a distinct aroma of tomatoes, making it more pleasurable on the nose. Its taste was less harsh as the first two, as it had a fresh and fruity taste with a tinge of bitterness on its finish. This was our favorite out of the three, mainly because it was much more palatable, standalone, than the others.

After understanding the general science behind olive oil tasting, Lisa and I overlooked a couple details -- it is recommended that the more robust oils should be tasted last (oops, we did it backwards), similar to wine tasting where it is recommended you start with whites, later moving onto reds. Also, to "cleanse your palate" between oil tastings, eating a slice of green apple is recommended.

To conclude our tasting with some munchies, we found some fun popcorn recipes via St. Helena Olive Oil Co.'s blog that calls for Arbequina extra virgin olive oil -- perfect for a party table dish. We decided to try the truffle salt popcorn recipe.

We started with some kettlecorn from Popcorn Indiana and California Olive Ranch's Arbequina extra virgin olive oil. We were a little concerned that kettlecorn may be too sweet for the recipe. Plain popcorn might work better, we argued -- or so we thought!

The surprise kick was the black truffle salt that I picked up in San Francisco last year from St. Helena Olive Oil Co. Although the recipe recommends white truffle salt (after all, it is more fragrant in aroma and taste), all I had was the black truffle salt so we made do!

We used two relatively narrow opened containers (I used my French fry serving cones from CB2), filling one entirely with popcorn. Next, we drizzled a reasonable amount of the Arbequina extra virgin olive oil over the popcorn followed by a dash or two of the black truffle salt (to your own taste and liking). Finally, we improvised by using a bartender cocktail-making technique: tossing the popcorn back and forth in the containers until the olive oil and salt were thoroughly mixed and combined.

And voilà! A quick and easy bar snack to serve at any party! Surprisingly, the sweetness from the kettle corn meshed very well with the savory olive oil and the salty, umamic (yes, I made that word up) from the truffle salt! So our improvisation with what we had wasn't too shabby! :P

Later, Lisa and I experimented a little, first using no olive oil -- just salt -- followed by using the Limited Reserve olive oil with the salt. Our conclusion? The olive oil is definitely a must -- it allows for the salt to adhere its flavor well to the fluffy kernels, so no skimping out on that. We also felt that the Limited Reserve olive oil worked incredibly well because it was more fragrant than the Arbequina, almost battling intensities on the palate with the truffle salt. A pleasant war of flavors, that's for sure!

Findings: Our California Olive Ranch olive oil tasting certainly taught me a lot of things I had no idea about olives oils and how it is tremendously similar to wine -- all the way from harvest (e.g., free-run vs. first cold press, terroir for both) through to tasting them (e.g., the four S's in tasting). I also now know better on what to look for when it comes to olive oils and what I tend to favor over others. The Arbequina is definitely something I want to keep constant in my kitchen, making me curious to try others. Also, our little snack of truffle salt popcorn proved to be a very easy success, with our tinkering and calibrating to find the best combination (Limited Reserve extra virgin olive oil, if it's available, paired with truffle salt, white preferably).

In the next year, I'd love to try out the other olive oil popcorn recipes from St. Helena Olive Oil Co. (that jalapeño-lime popcorn makes me super curious) as well as olive oils from other producers (St. Helena Olive Oil Co., Oliviers & Co., etc.) so I have a benchmark to compare quality. Hopefully I'll have more to report to you soon!

Price point: $13.99-17.97 for each 500-mL bottle of California Olive Ranch extra virgin olive oil, $3.99 for a bag of Popcorn Indiana kettlecorn, $24 for 3 ounces of St. Helena Olive Oil Co. black truffle salt.

--January 20, 2012

California Olive Ranch
2675 Lone Tree Road
Oroville, CA 95965

St. Helena Olive Oil Co.
1351 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574

Popcorn Indiana

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