California Olive Oil

Choosing California Olive Oil

September 20, 2009 · 27 comments

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.

olive oil shelf

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.

bread and cheese

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.

california olive oil copy

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

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Kirstin September 21, 2009 at 4:40 am

This was a really informative post, now if only there was local olive oil on the east coast I’d be set!

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Amy September 21, 2009 at 4:51 am

Informative post! On a vacation in Scottsdale last year, I found a wonderful California Olive Oil and have ordered it online a couple times. The Oils and Vinegars from DeVero Dry Creek Estate are wonderful!

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Jessica Lee Binder September 21, 2009 at 6:02 am

Kirstin, I haven’t found anything good on the East coast yet either.

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brad September 21, 2009 at 1:04 pm

I’m always skeptical about US olive oil – the last Californian I tried was sub-par at best. Unfortunately, I do not remember the brand or harvest date – harvest date being the most important! New seasons oil is always the best and the time for this seasons oil is right around the corner – so exciting. Also, do you remember which product from California Olive Ranch was your favorite? I’m skeptical but willing to give US olive oil another try – at those prices I would be stupid not too. Thanks!

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Allison Arevalo September 21, 2009 at 9:55 pm

Harvest date is most important! Good point Brad – have you tried olio nuovo? I plan on ordering some this week. I use the Arbequina oil from California Olive Ranch, and I really think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I too have had many sub-par California oils, but there are good ones out there. Buy small bottles and test them out. Let me know if you find, I’d love to hear about it.

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Kirsten September 21, 2009 at 1:37 pm

We’d love you to try our award-winning extra virgin olive oils! Please visit http://www.californiaoliveranch.com. Our Arbequina was the one featured in Cooks Illustrated rated “#1 California-grown”, but we have several to choose from. Similar to wine, just check out the tasting notes to see which works best for your own palate. Enjoy!

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brad September 22, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Hi Kristen -
Would you happen to know if the oils currently being sold on the olive oil ranch website are from the 2008 harvest? If so, is there a label on the bottle stating the harvest date? Thanks, and I’m looking forward to trying the Miller’s Blend.

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brad September 22, 2009 at 5:12 pm

EDIT: Sorry, I meant to type Kirsten:-) Hi Kirsten! Apparently I’ve been staring at a monitor for much to long.

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Kirsten September 28, 2009 at 10:10 pm

This is absolutely a great question, Brad. The “Harvest” date and the “Best By” date are two, totally different dates. The harvest date is the month/year when the fruit was harvested (from which the oil was extracted). In the case of California Olive Ranch, that is typically October or November. Looking at our latest product in my hand, Everyday California Fresh EVOO, it indicates a Harvest Date of 2008. We’re looking forward to harvest this year’s bounty very soon.

A “Best By” date is the date by which we recommend the consumer uses up the oil that they purchased from us, so depending on which oil you select, it may also state this directly on the bottle. This date assumes that the bottle has NOT been opened. Our oil is capped with a blanket of Nitrogen during bottling so that no oxygen is in contact with the oil. Usually the “Best By” date is 2 years from the bottling date, but no later than 3 years from the harvest date. Hope this helps.

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Surati Ivey November 12, 2009 at 7:15 pm

I gotta tell ya. Ditto on your review of the olive oils from California Olive Ranch.
It’s quiet fabulous, I just love it. The MILLERS BLEND is my favorite, and it cost $10.50 at the local gourmet health food store. A very good price for such quality! I’ve turned all my friends onto it, and will buy a case for Christmas presents-a very useful gift.
I drizzle it on salads along with good balsamic or fresh lime juice-great with fleur de sal sprinkled lightly on top. But actually I do fry eggs in it, eggplant for gratins, saute mirepoux for soups & stews, etc..I tend to be a bit extravagant.

McEvoy is lovely, but doesn’t impress me (as much) at the cost of a hefty $18 per bottle.

If you really want some holy olive oil, try to a hold of the extra virgin ones from Israeli olives grown in the hills of Galilee, made by the Israeli Olive Board. A friend gifted me with a bottle and it was so special I save it for finishing.

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Jenn AKA The Leftover Queen September 21, 2009 at 5:02 pm

I am with the East coasters. Although I have tried O Olive Oils, and they are pretty good, especially the infused ones, I am partial to the meyer lemon one.

I am even considering trying to find a substitute oil that can be found local to the East Coast…but it is going to take A LOT for me to give up Olive oil

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Angela@spinachtiger September 21, 2009 at 5:19 pm

I’ve been waiting or an olive oil article to talk about California olive oil. I’ve been buying my olive oil at trader joe’s for the very reason of at least buy usa. In tuscany, no they surely won’t have california olive oil. They will have homemade that they either made themself or someone gave them. No one buys oil there. Aren’t they so lucky. I live in Nashville, so there is no tennessee olive oil. Yes, it’s like being a fish in a monkey cage.

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Natalie September 21, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Thanks for the informative piece (and beautiful pics too)! My siblings and I always joked when we were kids that we probably had olive oil and garlic in our veins instead of blood. So, it suffices to say I’m always on a quest for the next great olive oil. I will definitely give California Olive Ranch a try next!

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Claudia Hanson September 22, 2009 at 7:34 am

Thanks for another great post! I’ve tried the California Olive Ranch olive oil and I can attest to it’s wonder. I can’t wait to try the others.

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Viviane Bauquet Farre September 23, 2009 at 6:26 am

Love, love, love this post… and so wish there was more California olive oil available here on the east Coast! I’m always looking for them.

I pick-up a bottle of extra virgin olive oil from http://www.temeculaoliveoil.com/shop/ while visiting Temecula a couple of months ago. It was as good as any olive oil I ever had in Italy. They also make a fabulous range of balsamic vinegars.

I’m heading to http://www.californiaoliveranch.com to buy some!

Viviane

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giao @ KMS September 23, 2009 at 11:42 am

great, great post! makes me miss living in san francisco….

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Paul Vossen September 23, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Come on up north and try our olive oils here in Marin and Sonoma Counties. There are over 300 small-scale producers here and several small mills. Paul Vossen

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The Chickenless Chick September 24, 2009 at 7:52 am

Thanks so much for this review. It inspired me to look up commercial olive growers here in Central Florida and, sure enough, there is at least one who makes olive oil. I’ve been scrutinizing my condiments more carefully lately, even boiling down ocean water for salt, but this is one that hadn’t yet occurred to me. Thanks for sharing!

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Ursula September 24, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Great post. I grew up in Lebanon, where we had olive trees, and my grandparents used to press olive oil, and make olive oil soap. My grandparents were obsessed about their olive harvest. Your post brought back memories such great memories.

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Ursula September 24, 2009 at 3:54 pm

My favorite here in California is the olio nuovo from DaVero. http://www.davero.com/

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Narain September 27, 2009 at 7:34 pm

I like the generic EVOO I got online from West Coast Products. It’s a good product for the price. If it’s an example of a middle of the road CA oil, then I’m impressed. Just made 15 lbs of pesto with it so I’d *better* like it!

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Rachel November 15, 2009 at 11:02 am

Preston Vineyards in Sonoma has some really great olive oil, fresh baked breads and wine tasting.

http://www.wineroad.com/wineries/53

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Jay August 4, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Why would you say don’t cook with a particular olive oil?

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