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

18 July, 2012

The Distinguished RN74

I recently had the pleasure of shooting a few dishes for RN74, chef Michael Mina's Seattle urban wine bar and restaurant (he now has 21 restaurants nationwide), specializing in refined American and regional French dishes. The decor is very distinguished and upscale, and the wine selection is superb.

RN74 is aptly named after the highway that meanders through the beautiful Burgundy wine region (Route Nationale 74). I had the pleasure of tasting several of the dishes that I shot, as well as meeting the chefs. I can wholeheartedly recommend the beet salad, salmon, duck breast, crème brûlée, and caramel popcorn.

Here are a few select photos I took of the restaurant and the food.

RN74 is located in the heart of downtown Seattle on Fourth Avenue

Lovely interior with dark decor, paneled wine lists, and padded booths

Dining room

Beet Salad

Duck breast with cherry sauce and a mini cassoulet

Salmon with basil potatoes, rhubarb, vanilla beurre blanc, and peas

Rancher's cut cote de boeuf with three sides (for two)

Last Bottle Board--a train station reader board
listing the last bottle available of that particular wines


Malt & frites

Watermelon consommé

Baked Alaska

Crème brûlée, ice cream sandwiches, caramel popcorn, and housemade otter pops