Published on September 25th, 2011 | by Greg0
Olive Oils And A Little Balsamic
It's harvest season! Time for new crops, but still a ways from the big holiday push when they might be packaged and ready for sale. In the meantime, we've caught up with several California producers to see what they have to offer now. For those not in the know, extra virgin olive oil (or EVOO) is a major California pride, up there with our grapes from Napa and Sonoma. And what would oil be without a little vinegar?
We'll start with the seasons themselves. Figueroa Farms might have an out-of-date website, but has a unique set of olive oil blends that they bill as trying to "capture the flavors of each season". They sent us a bottle of each to try, and though the packaging is also decidedly old-fasioned, the oils did seem to achieve what they set out to do. The Summer blend was bright and fruity, good on fruit even or paired with salads, and our favorite of the bunch. Their Spring was more aromatic, and we blended it with herbs and spices to compliment meats and serve as a marinade and dip. Unfortunately, the Autumn felt a bit off- it was the lowest-ranked of the oils we tasted from today's selections, and the Holiday Blend also fared poorly among testers. Both seemed to aim for a flavor that might have gone well with heartier fare, but we were primarily using breads, cheeses, wines, and some grilled and deli meats to accompany. Also, the texture and color of the latter two didn't earn many points, especially compared with some of the others we've tried recently. At $45 for the set, this Santa Barbara company seemed authentic, homey, and high-quality, but didn't quite meet our standards for value to recommend highly.
Like Figueroa, Apollo Olive Oil is Certified Extra Virgin. Both companies discuss what this means in detail, and though we don't have the space to discuss it completely, note that the term "extra virgin" has no precise meaning in the US, but that the California Olive Oil Council has developed a process to certify producers. Apollo also provides a cute chart comparing themselves with other producers. We tried two of their oils and found both to top our charts for day-to-day use and cooking- though distinct, both are certified organic as well, and like other oils are being tasted towards the end of the their best time as firms prepare to bottle the latest and greatest. Nonetheless, their Mistral Organic surprised us for the sheer freshness, at least of the bottle and batch we tried. While it didn't grab tasters as much in character or body as others in straight tasting, when tried blind with breads and other small bites, it was at the top of the charts. Phrases like 'refreshing' and 'pleasantly strong' were used, with hints of sourness and sweet. The Apollo Sierra was clearly different, and it held up well to the bite of heirloom tomatoes. Most also didn't give it top marks for sipping or color, but it was clearly complex and hearty without being overpowering. Two people noted it as feeling thick and full-bodied, and at $20 a bottle, felt worth it for the sheer quality and balance. We clearly aren't alone- this pair has been winners of many Gold Medals (Yolo, COOC, LA County) and the Mistral even was named the Best US Organic Olive Oil at the Biol, Italy Organic Competition 2011.
Larger and less expensive, California Olive Ranch nonetheless has managed to make a positive impression on us many times. Perhaps it's variety and the eponymous name, and even familiarity. We tend to use their oils the most of any single producer, and find their value proposition compelling. So, it's only natural that we were interested when they upped the ante further, releasing their Ranch Select series. While their widely available 'Everyday' oil runs a bit over $10 for 500 ml, the new varieties add $5 per bottle. We tried all three, the two Oroville and the Artois. Helpfully labelled, we weren't too surprised to find that their taste profiles match the expectations- and confounded our tasters to a degree. Basically, two of the three split the vote, with people loving the two Oroville and mostly feeling so-so about the Artois. Of course, taste is subjective- the Artois had excellent texture, was buttery and mild, but didn't make a strong impression either on it's own or with pairings. But the Oroville Ranch (two olive rating) was a kick in the mouth with olive juice, flavorful and lip-lickingly tasty. Those who rated it tops complimented the 'almost tropical' and 'wine-like' depth. Others preferred the the other Oroville, a bolder lubricant that held up on it's own even to spicy salami. Some treated our excellent ciabatta as a mere vessel for getting more of this oil. Everyone should be able to find something for them in California Olive Ranch's lineup.
Finally (whew!), The Artisanal Kitchen offers Balsamic vinegar and EVOO. Their oil is called "Three Olives", and was a good mid-range option, liked by most everyone and immediately accessible if not offering the intensity or pairing opportunities of some others. Also labeled Certified Extra Virgin, it's the most inexpensive of the day at $13 for 500 ml. And while it's mellow character and fairly standard packaging didn't stand out from the pack, we did like the color among the best. But we're happy to report the the Balsamico de Modena did impress. Word is that the stuff is made in Italy in wooden barrels, and "uses a higher proportion of grape must to wine vinegar than many other balsamics on the market"- which was obvious at first taste. While some balsamics can taste a bit off-balance, this one was sweeter than sour- not cloying, but smoother. At $15, it seems like a bargain!