End Your Dependence on Cheap Foreign Oil

by Michele Molony and Jenifer Schramm


You buy local produce. You support local farmers. You seek out quality ingredients when you cook. But have you thought about where one of the ingredients that you use most frequently comes from?

It is an expensive process to make quality extra-virgin olive oil, so why is some of it so cheap? Small producers in Europe and America who craft authentic extra-virgin olive oil can’t meet the worldwide demand. Unfortunately, some serious compromises by large producers and distributors have artificially distorted the price and quality of olive oil.

The olive oil industry has been plagued by deception for a very long time. A comprehensive article by Tom Mueller in the August 13, 2007, issue of the The New Yorker explored the practice since antiquity of adulterating olive oil with cheaper nut and seed oils. The author found that much of the oil labeled “imported from Italy” was shipped to Italy from other countries, treated chemically at large distilleries and then bottled.

More recently, in January 2009, Martin Stutsman, a consumer safety officer with the FDA, told USA Today that olive oil is one of the most frequently counterfeited food products. Even back in 1893, William Gould was searching for an alternative to adulterated oil when he started the mill on what is now Olive Mill Road in Montecito.

In California oil, variation in price and quality can be explained by the method of production. Large producers in other parts of the state use mechanical harvesting and high-density planting on irrigated farmland to reduce costs. Hand-harvesting can account for 65% of production costs for a small producer, yet it is considered necessary for the creation of truly great extra-virgin olive oils.

Buying from a known producer or trusted retailer is the best way to be sure of the quality and integrity of what you are getting. Olives love the climate on the Central Coast as much as grapes do. And with many California microclimates hospitable to a number of olive varietals, perhaps it is time to turn our attention to local producers.

Allure Estates near Paso Robles is a tiny olive grove and vineyard of four acres in a microclimate with extremely low rainfall of about eight inches a year and extreme temperature differences between day and night. Alex Alexiev makes the oil the Tuscans call pizzicante: a smooth and luscious oil with a strong peppery aftertaste. This pungency is caused by compounds rich in healthy properties that deteriorate with time and exposure to heat and light.

Fresh, high-quality olive oil has a balance of fruity, bitter and pungent flavors, in varying intensity depending on the specific oil. Two of the biggest factors in the taste of olive oil are the olive variety and ripeness at the time of harvest. The microclimate and soil of a particular orchard—the terroir—also has an impact on taste. Heat, light and oxygen are the enemies of olive oil, diminishing the flavor and creating rancidity.

Antoinette Addison of Figueroa Farms in Santa Ynez says that it is very frustrating when people consider any bitterness in oil as a defect. In fact, the bitterness and pungency in robust oils indicate high levels of antioxidants. Figueroa Farms not only grows and produces their own award-winning olive oil, but in 2003 they purchased an olive mill and now offer milling services to other olive producers in the region.

Finding your favorite olive oil can be as easy as finding your favorite wines. Go olive oil tasting—just like some wineries, some olive producers have tasting rooms.

The Asquith Ranch, home of Ojai Olive Oil, could be mistaken for heaven. After driving down a road bathed in the scent of orange blossoms and crossing a streambed, one arrives at an olive grove with an avenue of 130-year-old trees, 2,500 trees planted over the last 12 years and a backdrop of Los Padres National Forest. Owner Ron Asquith mills his own olives and offers a tour as well as a tasting room where you can try his three oils: mild/fruity, medium and robust. He finds that people may prefer one oil for salads, another for sautés and a third to garnish a delicate fish. He also believes that the freshness of the oil is important, and since there is a tremendous variety in the olive oils produced in California, there is no reason to look to Europe for oil.

Another ranch to visit for olive oil tasting is Rancho Olivos in Santa Ynez. They produce a Spanish varietal oil known for its buttery flavor, and they also make a blend of Italian varietals that has a fresh, grassy, somewhat pungent taste with a peppery finish.

Gus Sousoures of Olive Hill Farm recently opened a tasting room in Los Olivos that offers the opportunity to taste a number of local olive oils and to learn about different varietals. You can taste oils from Rancho Olivos, Figueroa Farms, Balzana and, of course, Olive Hill Farm’s own olive oils. Another tasting room in Los Olivos is Global Gardens, where they offer tastings of their award winning private-labeled olive oils, as well as special tasting presentations for large groups.

In Santa Barbara try a tasting at Il Fustino, where they have a nice selection of private-labeled local olive oils. Upscale grocery stores, specialty retailers and cooking instructors often feature tastings or classes. You can also find Olive Hill Farm, Fusano and Joëlle Olive Oil at the farmers markets, where they provide samples of their oils.

Once you have educated your palate, experiment when pairing olive oil with food to see what you like the best, just as with wine. For example creamy white beans can be kept in the delicate category by finishing with a buttery oil, or they can be given structure and taken in a whole different direction by adding rosemary and black kale and finishing with a peppery oil.

Don’t be afraid to cook with good olive oil, just keep it below its smoke point (approximately 365°–400°) for maximum flavor and health benefits. And even though it costs more, do use good olive oil in your everyday cooking. To put price in context, a bottle of wine may last one evening while a bottle of olive oil enhances many meals. If you use a lot of olive oil, find out if your favorite producer sells it in bulk. But use your olive oil quickly—within 1 to 2 years of its harvest date and within a couple of months once the container is opened.

California’s Mediterranean climate and cuisine make it a perfect fit for olive oil production. But consumers need to value and support the quality of the oil that the small producers are creating in order to ensure a steady supply. With greater demand, more land will be planted with these drought-tolerant, beautiful trees. It takes 5–7 years to get a crop of most varietals, with higher yield as the tree matures at about 12 years. But olive trees may live for 2,000 years—and still produce fruit, so that is a great long-term investment.


Chef Michele Molony is an honors graduate of the Paris Cordon Bleu, where she trained in both pastry and cuisine. She teaches at Savoir Faire Cooking School and other venues. She is the chef at Williams-Sonoma in Santa Barbara and cooks professionally.

Jenifer Schramm has been writing, editing and cooking while a lawyer, law school instructor and director of an art school. She is now focused on writing about food. When she first made her own lunch in second grade, her mother says her lunch box came home with no crumbs, but 27 olive pits.  



There are too many wonderful olive oils being produced on the Central Coast for us to list them all, but here are the ones mentioned in this article:

Allure Estates
805 237-8063;

Figueroa Farms;

Fusano California Valley
Olive Company

Global Gardens
2477 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos
805 693-1600

Il Fustino
3401 State St., Santa Barbara
888 798-4740

Joëlle Olive Oil

Ojai Olive Oil
1811 Ladera Road, Ojai
805 701-3825

Olive Hill Farm Tasting Room
2901 Grand Ave., Los Olivos
805 688-3700

Rancho Olivos
2390 N. Refugio Road, Santa Ynez
805 686-9653

For more information about California Olive Oil

California Olive Oil Council

UC Davis Olive Center

Recommended Reading

The Flavors of Olive Oil: A Tasting Guide and Cookbook by Deborah Kasner
(Simon & Schuster, 2002)

The New American Olive Oil: Profiles of Artisan Producers and 75 Recipes
by Fran Gage

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Categories Summer 2010