21 July, 2012

My First Olive Oil Tasting

I was treated to a fantastic dinner and olive oil tasting hosted by California Olive Ranch's Adam Englehardt and Kirsten Wanket, organized by Seattle's own Janelle Maiocco of Talk of Tomatoes, and held at Seattle's FareStart. I'd never been to a tasting of this type before so I had no idea what to expect. What I received was some outstanding knowledge about olive farming, the way the olive oil industry in the U.S. in currently run, and how to understand and taste the differences in olives. We all got to taste some creatively prepared dishes by Chef Tamas Ronyai, who infused various bites with the individual types of olive oils varietals we were tasting.

I learned some really fascinating things; things that will change how I purchase, use, and store oil. Although I had just read the book "Extra Virginity" (a very timely coincidence, and a book that I highly recommend), that book was focused mostly on Europe's Mediterranean region, since they produce most of the world's olive oil in that region.

The United States imports 98% of our olive oil. Most of the remaining 2% of our domestic demand is made in California. Currently, there are very few labeling standards. For example, a UC Davis study tested a large variety of international and domestic bottles of olive oil and tested them on criteria particular olive oil affecting quality and taste, looking for known flaws such as adulteration with other oils, poor refinement, oxidation, and so on. A whopping 69% of foreign oils and 10% of California oils labelled "extra virgin" were determined not to be of that high quality. (To be labeled "extra virgin", the oil cannot have any defects, cannot be used from olives that are too ripe or have been processed using high heat, cannot contain more than 0.8% acidity internationally or .5% in California, and must pass taste tests for superiority.) The current labeling system is broken, and higher standards need to be set. While the U.S. olive oil industry is very young in comparison to its European counterparts, it could conceivably pave the way for the world's olive oil standardization.

Olive oil is very sensitive. The known enemies of olive oil are time, oxygen, light, and temperatures that are too high or too low. In addition to selecting a good olive oil brand, it's important to store your oil away from heat and light, and to use it up before its shelf life expires (stored properly, two years unopened, or about six months opened).

California Olive Ranch produces oils with a rich, buttery flavor, some varietals are fruity and subtle and others pack a peppery punch. All of them were outstanding in comparison to off-the-shelf "top brands" and drizzled over prepared dishes. Perhaps the best thing I've had that was made with their oil was a bar of poco dolce bittersweet olive oil chocolate. I honestly think it was the best chocolate I've ever had the pleasure of consuming. No exaggeration. I could buy crates of that stuff. And honestly, in the world of sweets, I consider that healthy. It contains two "superfoods"-- dark chocolate and extra virgin olive oil, both extremely good for you.

I really came away with some great knowledge, some great products, and a lovely evening with Seattle writers, bloggers, and photographers. Here are a few of the photos I took of the event.

Adam Englehardt and Kirsten Wanket

Chef Tamas Ronyai


  1. Hey that California one is the olive oil I have now. I like trying different ones. Looks like a fun event.

  2. I attended my first olive oil tasting at Moregenster in South Africa. It was an incredible experience. Thanks for sharing yours.

  3. LOVE. Not only the event but meeting you!!!

  4. Oh my goodness...what spectacular pictures!!! And what a fun night! Loved meeting you...and so glad you were there to document the evening in such style!

  5. Now that you have been introduced to the olive oils obtained from industrial agriculture super high density production (only three olive varieties grown in the U.S.), please continue to broaden your exposure with any of the other varieties, especially California traditional olive oils. See Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition for award winners.
    Darro Grieco, Berkeley Olive Grove 1913

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