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Press On, California

May 17, 2000|EVAN KLEIMAN

Why concentrate on Italian oils? I suppose because I know them best; and in our markets and specialty stores, there are more from Italy than from anywhere else.

But I also use and appreciate great oils from other countries. From Spain, Nunez de Prado is justifiably famous for its meticulous traditional methods of pressing and decanting oil. The oil is usually a deep golden color and, when new, has a distinct grassy flavor.

Across the Mediterranean in Tunisia, a company called Moulins de Mahjoub produces an avocado-green, unfiltered oil that has the same peppery quality and bitter afterbite as the most revered Tuscans. It costs a lot less too.

The best oil I have ever tasted was a Moroccan oil, produced near Meknes, that was provided to a group of us who were cooking at the Hotel Mamounia in Marrakech. Of course, the producer doesn't export it, keeping all that beautiful, sexy stuff for himself.

What about California, you ask? I ask that question a lot myself. Many dedicated folks throughout the state are investing lots of time, money and energy in education, the latest equipment and traditional Mediterranean varieties of trees.

But it's hard. The trees need years before the harvests reach any size, and we have no specialized crews of experienced olive pickers.

On top of that, most growers who are trying to make quality olive oil also have vineyards. The grape crush is a massive undertaking, and in Northern California it takes place at the same time of year that is often perfect for harvesting olives for oil. So the olives wait on the trees until the grape pickers are finished with the grape harvest.

California is just at the beginning of developing its olive oil industry in a serious way. As do all good things, it takes time.

UC Davis is sponsoring several intensive courses on growing olives for oil. A few weeks ago an expert from Spain went to Davis to give the first in-depth course of its kind on the pressing of oil.

And in the quest to form a self-governing body to monitor the quality of olive oil, a California Olive Oil Council is in the works. In fact, UC Davis has offered several seminars on the sensory evaluation of olive oil to teach those who are interested.

California is a hotbed of olive oil activity, but I have yet to find an oil I love so much that I want to pour it all over a hot piece of bruschetta.

Not yet, but maybe soon. I hear rumors.

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