A bottle of Chateau Neuf De Pape wine from the Rhone region in France may include constituents of up to 13 grape varietals. Time-zones away, olive oil experts at U.C. Davis work with 100 olive varietals to create cutting-edge olive oil. After all, like wine, olive oil can be made up of multiple varieties of its base fruit.
While olive oil consumption has steadily increased over the past 30 years due to its healthful properties and popularity among celebrity chefs like Rocco DiSpirito, in California producers make keeping up-to-date into an art form.
Sensory panels made up of experts who taste the fruit-pressed oil in order to make sure it holds up to its artisan oriented standards is one way that the U.C. Davis Olive Oil Center is paving the way in advancement.
It doesn’t stop there. Executive Producer at the Olive Oil Center, Dan Flynn, shares the idea of replacing a panel of professional olive oil taste critics, which is largely utilized in Europe in accordance to the International Olive Oil council, with a lab-based measure that would be even more objective.
At the Olive Oil Center understanding olive oil down to its chemistry and DNA and implementing a sensory panel is important since most of the olive oil produced in the U.S. comes from California. Recently olive oil adulteration has become an issue in other countries and enthusiasts in California plan on stopping it before it becomes a major problem.
Adulteration, or olive oil fraud, is a practice that has the opportunity to become a large problem. The “liquid gold,” as Homer once referenced it, has also been named as the largest fraud problem in the European Union as reported in New Yorker’s“Slippery Business” breakthrough story by Italian-based reporter Tom Muller which documents olive oil fraud.
“In California, my guess is that fraud is very minor if it exists at all,” Flynn said. In support of the apparent honesty of California olive oil producers, representatives of the California Olive Oil Commission are working with California State Senator Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) on implementing a bill that would bring into practice more current regulations on the “juice.”
The International Olive Oil Council, IOOC, is an organization that the California-based council looks to for their world-wide trade reputation. Experts like Flynn understand that if their olive oil is going to keep up with the progressive market they need to implement some standards.
“Producers have the ability to label olive oil any way they want,” said Flynn about the oil that can range from the most pure, extra virgin, to a blend of refined olive oil, olive-pomace oil and can even be found in the absolute least pure form, lampante oil, which is not regarded as food.
The U.S Department of agriculture does not legally recognize quality standards adapted by the IOOC, whose member nations account for 85 percent of the world’s olives. Instead, the U.S. abides by USDA systemic criteria implemented in 1948 before the existence of the IOOC.
With its reputation as the state of innovation, in California a bill to set olive oil standards closer to those if the IOOC, Flynn said it will hopefully create a chain-reaction extending to the federal level.
While some of the olive oil sold in California is imported, if it says it is from California on the label even U.S. regulations make it no joke. The strict rules regarding agricultural practices like sanitation add an even more valuable dimension to the oil.
“Olive oil depends on freshness, so the closer to you are to where it’s from the better,” said Flynn who thinks the most intriguing aspects of olive oil are its flavor and rich past.
Though olive oil from California may not have the extensive tradition that it does in Europe, Flynn said that California has the advantage of being efficient in covering all areas.
“The aim of olive oil producers here is to try to make a high artisan product. At the same time there’s a sector going after the bulk market.” Flynn clarified that even though the olive oil produced for the bulk market may be an everyday kitchen item by no means does that mean loss of quality.
Despite the recent hype involving the ban in trans fats in California restaurants the olive oil world is so lucrative that while it may be positively affected it isn’t stopping there in implementation of ideas for the future.
Education is another department that is more powerful than people assume. Using the example of how red wine became more popular after the 60 minutes episode about the French paradox. “It’s funny how quirky little things like that can be so influential,” he said.
The idea that extra virgin olive oil may not be “virgin” is something that many Americans cannot even comprehend, unless they have read Muller’s article. Though we still have a long way to go Flynn says that documenting the fraud problems in the olive oil industry has opened the eyes of some people in California. “Nobody knows the extent of the problem.”
With the growing popularity of quality food products such as artisan breads and aromatic coffee, Americans are also becoming more knowledgeable about olive oil. In order to raise its profile Flynn said perhaps something like the 60 minute documentary will be syndicated on olive oil.
For now, events like the upcoming exchange between the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and U.C. Davis Olive Oil Center will have to suffice.
“We can start with people who can influence others and consumers,” said Flynn who had been at Davis for over three years, almost as long as the centers existence. “Putting word out to food opinion leaders important and something the U.C. Davis Olive Oil Center can do.”