While Northern California’s award-winning wine growing region of Lake County is making a name for itself in winegrape growing and high-quality wine production, olive oil is another product that comes from the fertile ground of this rural tourism destination. Several local producers have a variety of olive oils that are organically grown and processed right in Lake County. In fact, olive oil is such a significant product in Lake County there’s an annual festival in April just for this wonderful delight.
Several Lake County producers create this natural product which is used in everything from baking to cooking to even locally-produced soaps and we had the chance to speak with several of them about the advantages of olive oil from Lake County.
Bob Lipari, co-owner of the Villa Barone, said that there are a number of things that go into producing high-quality olive oil that many people might be surprised by.
Lipari described the process of picking the olives as the first important step, hand-picking the fruit in smaller batches so it doesn’t sit outside in the heat or on the ground. While it may be more cost effective to harvest olives mechanically or pick up those that have fallen to the ground, this isn’t the kind of oil that wins awards in the Los Angeles Fair international competition.
“It’s a perfect place to grow olives. That rocky, cracky soil in Lake County is really perfect for growing olives. There’s no fundamental reason we can’t make world-class olive oil here in Lake County.”
And several olive oils from Lake County have done just that.
Other important factors include not pressing the olives with heat which, while it does extract more of the oil, it also makes a lower-quality oil. In fact Chacewater Winery and Olive Mill presses much of the oil in Lake County in their certified-organic olive oil press.
According to Emilio de la Cruz, Master Miller at Chacewater Winery & Olive Oil Mill, The California Olive Oil Council of which Chacewater is a proud member, requires that COOC members to have less than .5% not 1% Free Fatty Acids (FFA) to be able to label their olive oils as “Extra Virgin” and to use the COOC seal on their labeling. Each new olive oil must also pass the sensory evaluation along with chemical lab analysis. Each of the tasting panel members are required to train for at least 3 years before become a COOC tasting panel member. These tasters are very similar to wine sommeliers. Their palates must be able to distinguish different defects as well as positive attributes associated with fresh newly made oils.”
So many factors affect the flavor of an olive oil and, like with wine, an individual’s taste can determine a favorite. As with wine, different varietals can impart a significantly different flavor. “We produce oils from multiple varieties such as Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Maurino which goes into our tuscan blend,” said Lipari. So how does one decide which is a favorite?
Like with wine, several producers in Lake County offer olive oil tasting flights. Chacewater’s is particularly extensive and includes both a Meyer Lemon- as well as a Blood Orange-infused oils. The Blood Orange is particularly well suited to being poured as a topping on vanilla bean ice cream. Trust us, it’s really good.
Olive Oil Tips
Many people are familiar with the term extra virgin olive oil but don’t understand the meaning. According to the California Olive Oil Council extra virgin is a grade of oil that meets chemical and sensory standards.
“They look for free fatty acid which is break-down of the oil,” said Lipari, “If you’re oil is 1% or less of free fatty acid you can call it extra virgin olive oil.”
Those who have been to the Chacewater Winery and Olive Mill and have experienced their olive oil tasting will know how different the various varieties of oil can be. Some oils are better suited for certain types of food, or as a dressing or even an ingredient in things like pesto sauce. Until someone has compared one olive oil varietal to the next it’s difficult to describe how different they are. The Villa Barone and Olivopolis both offer tasting by appointment and several of the wineries in Lake County also feature olive oil tastings.
Much like wines, which are also great to experience in the tasting rooms.
Olive Oil Recipes
One of the favorites of this writer is to cook mushrooms and onions in Chacewater’s blood orange-infused olive oil and sprinkle that with alderwood-smoked sea salt. In a separate pan cook cubed sweet potatoes with coconut oil. This is a wonderful sweet, smoky and tangy side dish for any barbecue.
According to Julie Scribner of Olivopolis, Cooking with olive oil doesn’t have to be anything fancy! Let the oil’s flavor enhance all the other ingredients you are using. If you are heating oil, use a lower-quality oil, because cooking it removes the flavor. Save your good oil for finishing your food – in salads, on vegetables, bread and many other foods:
- Grill a rib eye steak, let it stand a few minutes, then slice it ¼” thick. Spread on a warm platter, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and finish it with a generous covering of olive oil.
- Boil Yukon Gold potatoes, quarter and sprinkle with salt and pepper, add Italian parsley, and garnish heavily with olive oil.
- Toast sourdough bread, rub with raw garlic, and drizzle generously with olive oil.
The California Olive Oil Council has this recipe for an aioli:
- 2 or 3 fresh garlic cloves, peeled, chopped
- A pinch of Kosher or coarse sea salt
- 1 egg yolk, room temp
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 cup California COOC-certified extra virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Place garlic & salt in a food processor fitted with metal blade. Pulse for 2 seconds.
- Add egg yolk & lemon juice, and pulse on and off until blended. Turn back on and add oil in a slow steady stream until blended. lf too thick add some room temp water 1/4 tsp at a time until it gets a bit thicker. Aioli should be the consistency of mayonnaise.
- Finish off with pepper and more salt to your taste if needed.
Looking for something sweet? The COOC also suggests these
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup California COOC-certified extra virgin olive oil
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup fresh zucchini, finely grated
- 2 tablespoons plain yogurt
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- Frosting, optional, as needed
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 12 mini-cupcake or 6 regular cupcake tray with liners.
- Whisk together sugar, oil, egg, and vanilla in a large bowl until thick and smooth. Add zucchini and yogurt; stir well.
- In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, salt, and baking powder. Add to sugar mixture; stir until just mixed.
- Pour batter into cupcake liners. Bake until cupcakes are set and feel a bit springy to the touch, 18 to 20 minutes for mini cupcakes and 22 to 25 minutes for regular cupcakes. Cool in tins 10 minutes; remove from tins and cool completely on wire racks. Frost with favorite topping if desired.