In the last two decades, dozens of boutique olive oil producers opened in Northern California, and their oils became a much-appreciated staple at the area's farmers markets. By contrast, market-goers in the Southland have largely missed out--at least until last month, when Willow Creek Olive Ranch started selling its deliciously spicy extra-virgin oil.
Mata Iaia, daughter of the owner, sells three blends of oil at the Palos Verdes and Torrance markets. Her premium product, made from the most recent harvest last winter, is called Pasolivo. Rich and fruity, with a pleasing tinge of bitterness, this blend of Mission, Manzanilla and Sevillano varieties is more intensely flavored than oils familiar to most Americans. It would be ideal as a dipping for bread, or as a finishing touch for soups or other dishes.
For those who prefer a mellower taste, she has a Farmers Market blend, made from the previous crop, which was harvested the year before. It's a good all-purpose oil for cooking or salads.
"Olive oil changes over time, becoming less pungent," said Iaia's mother, Karen Guth, who established her 55-acre orchard in Paso Robles five years ago.
Guth's 8,000 trees are the largest planting on the Central Coast. She grows strictly for oil, and most of her trees are juicy Tuscan varieties, such as Lecchino, Mariolo and Pendalino, which bore their first crop last winter.
After tasting a blend of these Italian varieties, pressed at the farm, she decided to sell limited quantities called Pasolivo Italian blend, starting at markets this weekend. It's much more peppery than their regular Pasolivo blend, said Guth, who is accredited as a taster by the California Olive Oil Council.
A 500-milliliter bottle of the Pasolivo or Italian blend is $16; the Farmers Market blend costs $10 for 750 milliliters. Willow Creek Olive Ranch also sells by mail order at www.pasolivo.com.
The Palos Verdes farmers market, at Hawthorne Boulevard and Silver Spur Road, is on Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Torrance, 2200 Crenshaw Blvd, is on Saturday and Tuesday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Hot tip: Another vendor at the Palos Verdes and Torrance markets, June Kashima, has an unusual treat for just a week or two: freshly harvested walnuts, still in their smooth green husks. At this stage, known as "milky" in Europe, the kernels are moister and sweeter than regular nuts but can be used in all the same ways.
Kashima also has jujubes, small reddish-brown fruits that most resemble sweet apples in flavor, though they are not as juicy and crunchy. Sometimes called Chinese dates when dried, jujubes are much beloved in parts of Asia from Korea to Iran but are just beginning to catch on here.