Monday, 27 May 2024

The Veggie Girl: Fresh local olive oil




EDITOR'S NOTE: Lake County News is pleased to introduce our newest food column, “Veggie Girl,” written by respected local chef and culinary coach Esther Oertel. She will focus on locally grown foods and how you can best use them. We hope you enjoy it.

Lake County’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean region and is ideal for growing olives. An increasing number of local growers are pursuing their own tiny – and extremely delicious! – piece of the worldwide olive oil pie. That’s good news for our county, as well as good news for we who benefit from fresh, locally-available, home-grown health in a bottle.

Many of the people I speak with about olive oil are surprised to hear of the growing number of local labels.

Some wineries have begun producing their own oils, such as Ceago del Lago of Nice, which won the people’s choice award at the recent Kelseyville Olive Festival. Rosa D’Oro Vineyards of Kelseyville has two estate-bottled varieties available in their tasting room and the Kelseyville Wine Co. has at least five types, some of which have brought home silver medals from international competitions.

A number of other producers are dotted about the county, such as The Villa Barone (another silver medal winner) and Olivopolis near Hidden Valley Lake, Loconomi Farms near Middletown, Makiivka Estate of Lakeport and Loassa of Clearlake Oaks.

Each producer is passionate about the trees they’ve planted, their signature blends, the pressing process and their end product.

As with wine, there’s a special language to describe the properties of olive oil. Peppery, fruity and grassy are just a few of the colorful adjectives thrown around at a tasting.

There are seemingly endless varieties of olives; some are as tiny as a fingernail, others are as large as a plum, and varying types are grown in Lake County. The blend of olive varieties, as well as the ratio of ripe to green olives, contributes to each oil’s unique taste. It can be said that the complexity of producing a fine olive oil is akin to producing a fine wine, minus the aging process.

But why use olive oil?

First and foremost, there are positive health benefits. Studies have shown that monounsaturated fats such as olive oil are linked with a reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease. Olive oil has been shown to be effective in lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as having a positive effect on high blood pressure. It contains vitamin E and carotenoids, powerful antioxidants that protect our cells from damage.

Secondly, it tastes good! A simple piece of bread is transformed when dipped into it, plain lettuce benefits from its drizzle, and its flavor delights our taste buds in pesto and caprese salad. It’s quite versatile in the kitchen when used as a substitute for other fats. (Onions are delicious when caramelized in it.)

A simple mixed olive tapenade is delightful when made with a flavorful local oil, as is another favorite of mine, bruschetta, which is a mixture of equal parts chopped fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella served over toasted baguette slices. Add minced fresh garlic, freshly ground black pepper, salt (all to taste) and a healthy dose of olive oil to the tomato mixture.

Both of these simply-made culinary treats are served on little bread toasts made with olive oil (known as crostini in Italian or crouton in French). To make the little toasts, slice a baguette and brush each piece with olive oil. Toast the slices on a baking sheet in a 400 degree oven for several minutes until the outside is brown and toasty and the inside is soft. (You can test this by pressing lightly with your finger.) For an added treat, rub a fresh garlic clove lightly over the pieces. (My tapenade recipe is below.)

Why buy local olive oil? Aside from supporting our county’s industry and lowering the carbon footprint of the foods we eat, there are other benefits.

For one, the oil is fresher. Because local growers make smaller batches, it’s sure to be fresher than oil transported across miles of ocean or state highways.

Another reason is the taste. Local olive oils are lovingly handcrafted with taste in mind. In some cases, such as at local farmers’ markets or winery tasting rooms, it’s possible to taste before you purchase. This is a nice idea as, like wine, not all olive oils go with all dishes; as well, you may be partial to one oil’s taste over another. All have different flavor components and some are stronger than others.

I also like purchasing local oils because you can be assured of the quality. In Europe, the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) strictly regulates olive oil (such as what can be considered “extra virgin”), but the U.S. market has no such safeguards. Hence, almost anything can be labeled “extra virgin” and sold in the U.S. Local growers produce ONLY oil that comes from virgin oil production and can truly be called “extra virgin.” This is especially important to me as there have been recent scandals (such as in Italy in 2008) where oils other than olive have been sold as extra virgin olive oil.

For longest shelf life, olive oil should be in dark bottles as clear glass allows light to deteriorate the oil. Be sure not to use oil that has a rancid smell. Store your olive oil in a cool, dark place. Once opened, I store mine in the refrigerator to guarantee freshness, though this is not necessary if you go through your opened bottle in a reasonable amount of time. If stored in the fridge, it will solidify, so I place the bottle in a bowl of warm water to liquefy the oil for use.


1 cup high-quality black and green olives, any combination

1 tablespoon capers

2 cloves garlic

2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Coarsely chop in food processor fitted with steel blade. (Be careful not to over-process, as tapenade should not be smooth.) If stored in tightly-covered container, tapenade should keep for up to a month in the fridge. Add some extra virgin olive oil to moisten it when needed before serving. Serve on crackers or toasted baguette slices over cream cheese or goat cheese.

Esther Oertel, the "Veggie Girl," is a personal chef and culinary coach and is passionate about local produce. She owns The SageCoach Personal Chef Service and teaches culinary classes at Chic Le Chef in Hidden Valley Lake.

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