A Lesson in Olive Oil

Olive oil is a kitchen staple in my house.  So, when planning a day trip to Napa Valley while in the San Francisco area recently, I made it a point to visit Talcott Carneros Estate–Napa’s first large olive grove in the Carneros region.  I wanted to learn more about how this oil I so loved (and used daily) was made.  James Talcott, who with his wife Patricia, started their grove in 2004 with three thousand trees that include Tuscan varietals.  He took the morning to show me around his property, which was in full bloom with olive blossoms when I visited.

olive estate
Looking down one of the rows of olive trees on the Talcott Estate.
My visit was quite educational as James explained that it takes one ton of olives to produce 35 gallons of olive oil–it’s no wonder we call it liquid gold!  The olives are ready to be harvested in the fall and are hand picked on the Talcott Estate.  This is a tedious process, but better than some of the traditional ways such as beating the trees with sticks to make the olives drop to the ground.  Such rough treatment can cause damage to the trees and bruising to the fruit.  Once the olives are picked they are sent to the mill for pressing.

Flower buds that will become olives.
Types of Olive Oil
The most important lesson James taught me was how not to get “schnookered” when buying olive oil.  Many times the olive oils you can find at your local supermarket have a generic label listing virgin or extra virgin olive oil, but lacks any further description on where or what kind of variety the oil is.  This is important because many times the manufacturers are processing the oil with other oils so that it’s not a pure product.  In addition, depending on where the variety comes from, depends on the level of health-promoting polyphenols (those phytochemicals that play a big part in protecting blood vessels and heart health).  Olive oil that is labeled as “extra virgin” is made from the first pressing of the olives, which removes about 90 percent of the olives’ juice. Chemicals and high heat are not permitted.  “Virgin” oil is closely ranked and the difference is the acidity, which is slightly higher.  The color of olive oil may be pale yellow to bright green and the rule of thumb is deeper the color, the more flavor.

mr talcott
I’m standing with James in front of one of the olive trees at the Talcott Estate
Storing and Cooking
I had heard that it was not recommended to cook using olive oil because it could not withstand higher temperatures.  I love the flavor it adds to my dishes, so I figured I was probably making a culinary “faux pas,” but I really didn’t care.  I asked James about this as he entertains frequently and as luck would have it our guide for the day was a sommelier who had extensive restaurant experience as well.  Both told me that this was not true–cooking with olive oil was perfectly fine.  Where it gets tricky is if you are going to do something with very high temps (like deep frying), then you’ll want to switch to a different oil.  In order to preserve the flavor of olive oil, keep it in a cool place and make sure it’s in a sealed container.  Light can also degrade oil, so keep it in your pantry or cupboard.
I like to cook with olive oil for almost all my dishes (except baking), but if you need ideas try it drizzled over a salad, in a marinade or substituted for butter with your bread at dinner.  James and Patricia have some healthy and simple recipes like Roasted Ratatouille.  Or try The Olive Bar where you can freshen up deli olives for your next party.

I hope you’ve found this week’s blog informative and it encourages you to incorporate olive oil into your diet.   I’ll be back next week with some new ways to enjoy the sweet flavor of strawberries.
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