We support local farms. We shop at neighbor stores and avoid chains. We drive hybrids. We recycle, reuse and compost. We are locavores. Yet we buy French wine and Italian olive oil.
It happens to the best of us. Our id trumps our ego and we grab the bold, piquant Sicilian olive oil while the seemingly bland bottle from California sits untouched on the market shelf. Buying domestic olive oil seems like a sacrifice; something we do to reduce our carbon footprint, but not what we want soaking up our artisan bread.
I am guilty of this faux pas. I rationalize it because my family is from Italy, so really, I’m supporting my tribe when I buy Italian olive oil. But I came to my senses when I realized there are no self-respecting Italians with a bottle of California olive oil in their pantry. You won’t find McEvoy Farms proudly displayed on a dinner table at a hillside villa in Tuscany.
There are many quality California olive oils made by responsible farmers using sustainable methods. I sampled a few at farmers’ markets – Big Paw, Bariani and Stonehouse among them. Cook’s Illustrated recently opened my eyes to other top-notch options, in their informative article on up-and-coming olive oils from California.
If you have yet to trade in your European favorites for domestic extra-virgins, I have three affordable options that can stand up to any discerning palate. These bottles range in price from $11-$16 for 375ml, and while I wouldn’t use them for cooking, they are ideal for finishing, drizzling or mixing into dressings.
Barzana Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Santa Ynez, CA
This is the priciest oil on my list at $16 a bottle, and it’s also the lightest. I don’t judge olive oil solely on color, but I’m skeptical of unsaturated hues of yellow. What this oil lacks in color it makes up for in flavor. It starts fruity, smooth and even buttery; and just when you’re thinking, “that’s it?”, it finishes with a pungent burst of pepper that lingers in the back of your throat. This oil is best enjoyed drizzled on fresh mozzarella with a thick slice of crusty bread. Keep it away from other robust flavors, it’s best as the star of the show.
St. Pierre Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Sonoma, CA
Such an elegant, grassy olive oil. I don’t usually describe oils as “grassy.” It’s generic and overused. But St. Pierre’s is grassy, with an aroma like a freshly cut, bright green backyard. St. Pierre is made with olives grown in Northern California, and was named #1 California Olive Oil by the San Francisco Chronicle. Everything about it is soft; you can taste herbs and spice, but it’s neither overwhelming nor muted. St. Pierre is my oil of choice for salad dressings, either with a splash of lemon or whisked into a vinaigrette.
California Olive Ranch: Oroville, CA
This is it. My new favorite olive oil. I’m not alone in this assessment. Cook’s Illustrated loves it, as does Brett Emerson, chef/owner of Contigo in San Francisco. Order the cured anchovies and the fillets will be swimming in this electrifying oil. It’s balanced, bold and fresh. You would think the olives were pressed five minutes before landing on your plate. Again, don’t cook with it, although at $11 for a half liter you could. Use it as a finishing oil on pasta dishes, drizzle it on pizza, soups or roasted vegetables. This is the olive oil that proved to me Californians can, and do, produce oil as good as that of our European ancestors.
Next time you shop for olive oil, stick to your principles and choose domestic varietals from California. Then you can truly call yourself a locavore, without sacrificing flavor to do so. Now if you can only give up that bottle of Bordeaux…
Where I Shopped:
Barzana and California Ranch Olive Oil: Star Grocery, Berkeley
St. Pierre Olive Oil: Monterey Market, Berkeley