“You gotta have good olive oil. You should have a cooking olive oil, and you should have a finishing olive oil, like an extra-virgin olive oil.” – Emeril Lagasse
Growing up, there were always two things on our table when we’d sit down for dinner. The first was a bottle of wine. The second was a bottle of olive oil. Both were more prevalent than salt and pepper. For this article, I’m taking a small step outside the wine world to explore another gem: Olive Oil.
In our house, wine and olive oil were ever present. From family gatherings to Catholic Church outings, the two were always nearby. In fact, when I was baptized, the priest anointed me with olive oil. Had I not abandon all forms of religion as a teenager, I would have again been daubed with a mixture of balsam and olive oil at my Confirmation, but that’s a whole other story. One that my mother reminds me of nearly every time I visit her.
Let’s not forget that olive oil also plays a major role in Jewish history. The oil produced from a single olive was the fuel they used to light the menorah during the time of the Exodus. I’m not a religious scholar, but as I understand it, they had only enough oil for one night, but the menorah burned for eight nights. In 1446 BCE, that was the amount of time it took for them to produce more oil. Again, that’s how it’s been explained to me.
It’s hard for me to remember a time my mother didn’t use olive oil while cooking or preparing meals. She used it in everything. Every dish she made, in the water she boiled for pasta, in each salad she tossed, on every antipasto appetizer and, of course, there would always be a small bowl of olive oil that sat next to a second small bowl of balsamic vinegar that sat next to the bread basket.
Now, when it comes to the quality of olive oil, it’s completely unlike wine in that age is the enemy. With olive oil, the younger the oil, the better it will taste.
When I told my mother that the Italian olive oil she has been using for 60 years is not as good as the oil you can get from a producer up in Northern California, she dismissed me. “The oil I use is fine. It tastes great,” she said to me. I replied, “Yeah? Well maybe you’ve never had a fresh quality olive oil and, therefore, really have no idea what it should taste like or what you’ve been missing.” She hung up the phone.
In a desperate attempt to make my mother understand this issue, I dug in and did some research. Here is what I found:
“Some industry analysts estimate that more than 50% of all mass-produced olive oil is spoiled when consumed.” – Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Body
“By the time imported olive oil reaches us, it has often been shipped from place to place and sometimes not stored well. Even if it’s not noticeably rancid, many of the heart-healthy compounds have degraded and fizzled.” – Tom Mueller, Truth In Olive Oil
“In fact, a study from the University of California, Davis, found that 69 percent of imports tested failed to meet a U.S. Department of Agriculture quality standard.” – Allison Aubrey, Morning Edition – NPR
That’s right. Locally-sourced wins again! Armed with my new found information, I started doing, even more, research on what it really means, and what it actually takes, to make and deliver a quality olive oil. So, while looking into who was producing California Olive Oil, I quickly learned there were over 350 companies. I started reading blog and magazine reviews, and it became apparent to me at once that they were about as irrational as wine reviews, that the reviewers themselves had a slant of some sort, and that no one was really doing anything to promote the magic of olive oil. This work proved to be more of a challenge than I’d expected. Yes, I realize I write wine reviews, so then why would I say something so seemingly blasphemous? It’s this:
Reviews, all reviews, come down to someone else’s opinion. You’ve heard the phrase, ‘consider the source,’ right? Well, since I personally only care about the opinion of a few wine reviewers, I decided that was the approach I needed to take here. Ignore everyone and seek out my own olive oil maker. The same way I find the wines I review. It was then I remembered that of the 4,500 or so followers I have on Instagram, there was an Olive Oil producer. After a quick scroll through my account, I found them; Frantoio Grove.
And… what’s that? You don’t follow me on Instagram? Well, you are missing some of the best wine and food images on the social channel. Thousands of people can’t be wrong! Join in the fun. Follow me here: Y9Review.
Okay. Back to Frantoio Grove. They are located in San Martin, right next to Gilroy, the garlic capital of the Santa Clara Valley. If you’ve not heard of Gilroy, you should check them out. They are home to the world-famous Garlic Festival that takes place every July.
I went to the Frantoio Grove website and continued my research. Their olive groves were planted in 2005 by Jeff and Pam Martin. They planted about 3500 olive trees on 30 acres and waited for them to grow. For the next five years, Jeff Martin educated himself on everything there was to know about olives and olive oil. He took excellent care of his trees, and with the help of some owls (that’s right, owls) he kept the rodent population to a minimum. Then, on December 12, 2010, they had their first production run, and they were in business. The olives were pressed, giving them 420 gallons which yielded 4,000 bottles of olive oil. That’s an impressive 11 tons of fruit.
With everything I was learning about Frantoio Grove and their story, what was most captivating to me was that they chose a single olive varietal to make their oil from. Meaning, they wanted one olive, just one, to be grown, harvested, pressed, and turned into their olive oil, which by the way is the only thing they sell on their site. Making a choice to use a ‘singular varietal’ olive, I would soon discover, was rare. You have to understand, there are dozens of olive varieties. Your standard store-bought olive oil uses either the common Arbequina or Arbosana, neither of which would be considered a ‘top shelf’ olive, but most producers are using several types of olives at once to make what is known both here and in the wine world as a blend.
The taste of a typical olive is tart, bitter and has a slightly smokey finish. That would not do for the Martin’s. Nope. That was not going to happen in any way. They were all in and choosing a single olive varietal implied they’d done their homework and were also going for something very specific, which they were. That’s why they picked the Frantoio. It’s the same olive used in Tuscany and is considered the premier olive for Extra Virgin oil. They chose the best.
Frantoio Grove is what you would call a small producer. If they made wine, they would be a “Cult” winery. They’ve won numerous awards and have been certified as an Extra Virgin Olive Oil by the California Olive Oil Council (C.O.O.C.). A distinction that is judged on and awarded, not just on quality, but also on the history, the taste and the style that goes into the production of the olive oil.
What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
“Extra Virgin” is the highest grade an oil may receive. International standards dictate that olive oil meets both chemical and sensory standards to be sold as extra virgin. The oil’s chemistry, tested in a laboratory, meets or exceeds specific parameters that indicate the careful handling and storage of the olives and oil. No chemicals or extreme heat may be used during the extraction process. “Extra Virgin” also denotes that the oil is free of defects of flavor or odor. This is evaluated by a trained sensory panel and cannot be detected by laboratory tests. Unfortunately, in the U.S., many of the oils which are labeled as extra virgin are not required to undergo any such testing. – California Olive Oil Council
I placed my order directly from their website and within two days, a bottle of .375ml Frantoio Grove olive oil arrived. Beautifully packaged, the bottle was boxed and wrapped in a soft brown muslin cloth. Like a well-made wine, quality comes with a price. At $23.95 per bottle, plus $8 shipping… yes, it’s pricey, but after tasting it, I knew at once, it was completely worth it. Not to mention, I had the opportunity to support a small farmer who takes an olive, creates oil from it and viola! Worth every penny.
I poured a small bit into a cognac glass and, like with cognac, let my palms warm the glass. After a few minutes, I nosed the oil. My wife, Shawn-Marie, did the same. We both found the same notes. Wild grass and nuts. Fresh. Clean. Unimagined, in olive oil. I drizzled a small amount of oil on some fresh homemade bread and tasted. On the front: hints of pistachio, lots of fresh green grass, almost hemp-like. And on the finish: a tiny bit of zing and subtle citrus.
This was like no olive oil I’ve ever tasted. That usual greasy, meaty blend was nowhere to be found. It was like enjoying fresh cut grass with notes of butter and forest. Seriously. I told my wife, “I can imagine many people not liking this.” It would be like giving someone a glass of Screaming Eagle when all they’ve ever had was Two Buck Chuck. The nuances of what an amazing glass of wine tastes like would be lost on them. I went over to our kitchen stove and grabbed a bottle of what, up to that point, I’d considered a nice bottle of olive oil. The same kind my mother had been putting on our salads and cooking with for years. The side-by-side taste was undeniably night-and-day. There was absolutely no comparison. There was nothing similar in smell or taste, and when I put some on my fingers and rubbed them together, even the viscosity was different.
My wife drizzled the oil on another piece of bread and a bit more over the salad she was making. She looked at me and said, “I’m never going back to that,” as she pointed to the bottle I took down from over the stove. I replied, “We’ll cook with ‘that’ one, but the Frantoio Grove, as Emeril says, is only for finishing great foods.”
This little experiment with a remarkable olive oil reminded me of that single standout glass of wine, the one that showed me undeniably, what a spectacular wine should taste like. It was the 1975, Chateau Mouton Rothschild and from that point on, I was on a mission to learn about and drink the best wines made from the best producers in the world. Needless to say, I now find myself on the same quest for great… no, for the best olive oils made. That said, my visit to Tuscany can’t get here soon enough. I want to taste a Tuscan olive oil right there. In Tuscany. Where it’s actually made. You know, before it gets shipped and starts its long voyage to the US, gets stuck in a distribution warehouse somewhere, then is trucked across the other side of the country where it will ‘finally’ be placed on a shelf for me to eventually find… many, many months later.
Something to note. Temperature and light can quickly turn a great olive oil rancid, and once your bottle is open, the death process begins. So, for safe keeping, I put my bottle of Frantoio Grove in the small wine fridge we have in our kitchen, where it will stay in the dark at a comfortable 55 degrees, until it is empty, which if I don’t hide it from Shawn-Marie, will happen rather quickly.
Frantoio Grove Awards for 2016:
2016 BEST OF CLASS at New York International
2016 GOLD at Los Angeles International
2016 GOLD at California State Fair
2016 GOLD at Japan Oil Prize
2016 GOLD at Napa Valley
You can visit Frantoio Grove at FrantoioGrove.com
NOTE: In the new world of fake news and misinformation, I’m setting the record straight. I was not paid for this article and Frantoio Grove had no knowledge of this piece prior to it being completed.