Whether you like it green and grassy or butter-churn yellow, chances are you don't know quite as much about olive oil as you think you do. More than just a dip for bread or tasteless oil for heart-healthy sauteeing, true olive oil has as much depth, flavor and character as a fine wine. And can cost you just as much.
Sonoma County and neighboring Marin, Mendocino and Napa are at the heart of an artisan olive oil renaissance that goes back to the early 1990s. Inspired by the robust, peppery, fresh flavors of Tuscan olive oil, a handful of producers -- among them SoCo's own Bruce Cohn, Deborah Rogers, Ed Stolman, Ridgley Evers and Colleen McGlynn -- began producing award-winning small-production oils that tasted more like Italy and less like the bland, flavorless imported oils being dumped on the American market.
"There's fat and there's flavor," says DaVero Olive Oil's Ridgely Evers, one of Sonoma County's most outspoken advocates for buying fresh, local, extra-virgin olive oil. According to Evers, as well as UC Davis olive expert Paul Vossen, most of the cheap, imported olive oil on grocery shelves is old, substandard stuff.
"A little rancidity is normal. But olive oil just doesn't get better with time. You need to get it fresh to capture the essence and flavor," Vossen said.
Those flavors include things like green apple, green beans, grass, hay, butter, nettles, green banana or green tea. They shouldn't include flavors (or smells) like varnish, oil-based paint or old walnuts -- signs of rancidity. Extra-virgin simply means the oil is of the highest grade. Look for a certification on the bottle from the California Olive Oil Council.
Want to know how to get the good stuff? Go right to the source and be prepared to pay a pretty penny -- upwards of $20-$30 a bottle. This isn't cooking oil. Instead, use these high-quality oils for dipping, light dressings and finishing oils for meats and fish -- where you can truly appreciate their flavor. Save the cheap stuff for searing, frying or sauteeing.