Field Report #6

From: Robin and Kathryn at Fat Gold

Greetings from Fat Gold!

It’s pruning season! We talked about this work in a Field Report last year, so rather than repeat that, we’re going to tell you about another early spring activity.

Every year, at a sprawling hotel outside Monterey, the California olive oil industry gathers to consider itself. It’s a smaller group than you might imagine; there are representatives from producers like us, who farm just a few acres, alongside people who produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of olive oil. There’s a little trade show; there are awards; there’s dancing.

This year’s conference of the California Olive Oil Council happened last weekend, and we thought it might be interesting to share just a sample of the things we learned.

I’m typing this at the Fat Gold grove, so I’ll toss in a few photos as I go. Warning: it’s almost absurdly pretty at this time of year.

The grove in March

So! The first thing I learned about was olive oil politics!

There is a lobbying group that represents U.S. olive oil makers, the American Olive Oil Producers Assocation, or AOOPA (say it: aye-oop-ah!), which has as its ultimate goal a federal quality standard for olive oil.

Here’s a term that was new to me: “pool red,” the current average price of olive oil from producers in Spain, which makes more than any ountry in the world by a wide margin. This is the most baseline commodity price for olive oil; “pool red” doesn’t apply to Fat Gold, but it does apply to a whole lot of Mediterranean olive oil.

There are chickens!

Later in the conference, the dynamic David Garci-Aguirre told the California olive oil industry it was getting excited about a D+.

David, the head miller at Corto Olive Oil, is one of the most exciting voices in this industry. He’s deeply technical—he knows the mill and he knows the lab—but firmly focused on the human experience of olive oil. He is always the one in the room banging a drum for TASTE.

To understand David’s argument, you have to understand California olive oil’s obsession with the extra virgin standard. Generally, I think it’s a healthy obsession; olive oil imported from Europe is often low-quality, mislabeled, or even adulterated with other oils, so it means a lot to say that California’s standard—its definition of “extra virgin”—means something.

It means a lot… but David says it’s not sufficient.

California’s extra virgin standard doesn’t say anything about olive oil being GOOD; it only asserts that it’s not BAD. Olive oil can be labeled extra virgin as long as it passes a battery of chemical tests, has no sensory defects, and offers fruity flavor greater than zero.

“Greater than zero!” David sputtered.

So really, he said, if your olive oil is extra virgin, it means you got a D+. You passed.

Our goal, of course, should be much higher than that. We should be thinking about the opportunities that lie way beyond the extra virgin standard—striving to make olive oil of A+ freshness and fruitiness.

We’ve written before about olive oil’s shelf life. If an oil barely squeaks past the extra virgin standard with a D+, it won’t be extra virgin for long. But an A+ oil will hold up for a long time! It will continue to be delicious and healthy for a year, and even longer, after it’s bottled.

Tracks in wet grass

Dr. Mary Flynn is a Ph.D nutritionist at Brown University. She’s dynamic, fast-talking, brilliant; listening to her, you get the sense of a brain brimming over—and soon enough, your brain feels the same way, frothing with all the things you’ve learned.

One of the reasons Mary is so impressive and so important is that she’s so rigorous. When she makes claims about olive oil’s health benefits, you take them seriously, because you know she pins her reputation on getting things right, never overstating the science.

One of her slides listed the health benefits of olive oil that have been demonstrated in peer-reviewed studies:

It decreases blood pressure; increases HDL; decreases LDL oxidation; decreases blood clotting; decreases inflammation; decreases the level of insulin in the blood; decreases blood glucose.

That’s an amazing list of effects.

“Extra virgin olive oil is the only known food, or medicine, that can provide so many health benefits,” she said. “This is why I’m obsessed with olive oil!”

I am, of course, a fan of olive oil, but listening to Mary talk, I started to feel giddy. It’s almost absurd! This substance, with all these benefits, also tastes delicious, and makes other things taste delicious. There’s literally no downside. What dark magic is this?

An important thing to know—and this is straight from the research—is that olive oil’s benefits come almost entirely from its phenols. (We’ve written about these before: they’re the compounds that give extra virgin olive oil its characteristic back-of-the-throat burn.) Phenols are most abundant when olive oil is fresh; they degrade steadily over time. (Keep in mind, there are no phenols at all in refined olive oil, nor avocado oil, nor coconut oil…) So again, it’s all about shelf life, and making a great product in the first place. A two-year-old bottle of D+ olive oil isn’t going to offer any of those benefits that Mary reeled off. It’s got to the be really good olive oil, and it’s got to be fresh.

There are chickens!

What else? A great presentation from Mary Mori, who runs the lab at California Olive Ranch, on the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act, which is, among other things, transforming the labeling requirements for every product in the grocery store. A session on sustainability with a focus on California’s resolution to be carbon neutral by 2045. A tasting session focused on oils with specific defects. Did you ever want to know what olive oil made from a crop full of mummies—dessicated olives from the previous year, still clinging to the trees—tastes like? This was the place to find out!

Kathryn also attended a millers forum where the real makers of olive oil gathered to talk about production challenges (what to do with all that olive mash byproduct), processing aids (including enzymes, which can speed up the olives’ release of their oil), and new technologies (the potential use of ultrasound to crack open olive cell walls). (Note: Fat Gold doesn’t use enzymes!)

All in all, it was my favorite COOC conference yet. Kathryn and I left Monterey with our heads and bellies full.

–Robin and Kathryn

You can sign up to receive our seasonal Field Report, which includes harvest updates, olive oil intel, and the occasional coupon code: