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by Maia Hirschbein, Oleologist at California Olive Ranch

My olive oil epiphany happened in the spring of 2013. Visiting producers as part of my Masters curriculum at the University of Gastronomic Sciences exposed me to some of the top olive oil producers in Italy, and my heart and mind were so intensely drawn to the olive orchards that I couldn’t ignore it. I realized during my first olive oil tasting that it was a foreign taste, and I had never tasted real extra virgin olive oil before. I grew up in a household in which my parents prioritized seasonal and healthy foods, but olive oil was off of their radar. I wasn’t aware of the fact that olives were farmed in California before my time in Italy. In retrospect, I traveled across the world to learn more about home.

Olives have been farmed in California since the arrival of the Spanish missionaries in the 1700s, but only underwent a transformation to produce olive oil on a larger scale in the late 1980’s. The growth of the olive oil industry grew in the wake of the explosion of the wine industry. Since then, there has been rapid expansion in the sector, and there are now over 500 producers growing 70 different varieties of olives. These producers range from small family operations to large semi-industrial producers focused on scale. 

For the last three years I have been working with the largest producer, California Olive Ranch, helping to grow our educational programming and outreach to the restaurant and foodservice community. Similar to retail olive oil, foodservice olive oil is mostly made up of imported olive oil; close to 95% of what is used in American kitchens comes from other countries. We have been working hard to grow distribution and scale to enable restaurants that are passionate about sourcing locally and domestically to use California olive oil in their kitchens. The experience has been more rewarding than I could ever have imagined.

And using local oil often makes a difference in the quality of the food: Like any other fruit juice, olive oil is perishable and sensitive to light, heat and oxygen. It is often no longer fresh and fruity when it is arrives into the US from abroad, and there is often meddling and fraudulence in the production and bottling process. Olive oil is also very easy to fake, and has been for hundreds of years. For these reasons, I have been committed to telling the story of the myriad benefits of California olive oil since returning from Italy.

I am also a huge advocate of educating home cooks on best practices when consuming extra virgin olive oil:

  • When possible buy local. California is a growing industry and needs your support.
  • If you purchase oil from other countries, make sure there is a harvest or milling date on the bottle, and is in dark glass. Also make sure only one country is listed in country of origin.
  • Once you open a bottle of olive oil, use it quickly, within the 2-3 months if possible.
  • Store oil in a dark and cool location, tightly sealed especially after opening.
  • Use it on everything! I encourage people to cook with it, bake, sauté, fry, make salad dressings. Have fun with it and remember that it is versatile and good for you. 

Your food is only as good as your olive oil you cook with, so choose well and have fun learning and exploring different oils. Taste it often and use it quickly. For any questions regarding olive oil of any kind please feel free to contact me at mhirschbein@cal-olive.com.

Maia Hirschbein holds a Masters in Food Culture and Communications from University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy.  While in Italy, Maia worked the harvests with award winning olive oil producers in Tuscany, Liguria, and Sicily, which inspired her passion for the growing olive oil industry back at home in California.  As part of her Masters research, Maia completed a comprehensive study of the state of California olive oil industry, in which she met with dozens of producers throughout the state.  Maia worked quality control in the 2013 harvest with the second largest grower in California, and conducts ongoing independent tasting events.  At California Olive Ranch, Maia leads their olive oil education program and research with chefs, helping COR raise awareness and create products for chefs and restaurants.