When in Ojai, for a quick education in olives, a visit to the Ojai Olive Oil Company is essential.
You may be wondering: Why would anyone want to learn about olives? Well, for the same reason people want to learn about wine.
While there’s no small shortage of wine production and tasting rooms in California’s prime wine regions including Napa, Sonoma, Temecula, and Santa Ynez Valley to name a few, in Ojai, you’d be remiss to skip the olives. Don’t get it twisted – this small city has its fair share of wine tasting rooms as well, but due to its geography and Mediterranean climate, Ojai is the ideal place for olive growing.
While Jave and I tasted olive oils during our visit to Santa Ynez Valley awhile back, that tasting was purely to determine which olive oil we wanted to purchase, without gaining any real insight into the olive oil production process.
So when I came across the Ojai Olive Oil Company while researching things to do in Ojai for our recent day trip, I knew that a tasting there would be right up our alley. Initially, I’d hoped that we could take a tour of the company’s olive groves, but since tours are only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays, we had to settle for a tasting.
Located on the Asquith Ranch, the tasting room can be a bit tricky to find even when using Google Maps. When we finally arrived, the owner (whose name escapes me) immediately greeted us and started rattling off bits and pieces about her olives and groves.
From what I can tell, the owner inherited the grove from her late Italian husband whose family planted the main grove in the 1880s back when valley residents relied on a communal olive press. Throughout the years, in spite of natural disasters, droughts and storms, the ranch’s olive trees have managed to thrive with minimal maintenance. The owner’s commitment to permaculture – i.e., organic farming based on natural ecosystems – and sustainable agriculture has also largely contributed to the success of the ranch’s olive trees.
As we moved into the tasting room, the owner explained that only 1% of olive oil consumed in the U.S. is actually U.S.-made, and most U.S.-made olive oil is produced in California. She also explained that we would be tasting the fruits of the ranch’s fall 2015 harvest.
Our tasting included extra virgin olive oil from three of the major olive oil producing countries along the Mediterranean: France, Spain, and Italy.
“The French don’t like their oils to taste so peppery,” the owner said. “I know, because I’m half French.”
The peppery flavor of the oils ranges, with oils made in France being most mild, while those made in Italy are more peppery. Prior to our tasting, I’d never really paid attention to the peppery notes in my olive oil, but as we tasted and compared the three oils, the level of pepper in the Italian oil was much more apparent than in the French oil. I also didn’t know that extra virgin olive oils that have more peppery notes are healthier than those that don’t due to the higher amounts of polyphenols (antioxidants) they contain.
Like most U.S. consumers, I probably wasn’t familiar with what a good olive oil is supposed to taste like due to the fact that many olive oils sold in the U.S. aren’t pure as they’re infused with other kinds of oils.
During our tasting, we also learned that extra virgin olive oil is unprocessed and unrefined. The goal of the olive oil producer is to pick ripe (black, not green) olives, and get them into the press as quickly as possible to reduce the amount of oxidation time. So extra virgin olive oil is basically fresh pressed olive fruit.
However, there’s an International Olive Council based in Madrid that certifies whether olive oils are really extra virgin or not since extra virgin olive oils can’t have an acidity level of more than 0.8/100 grams and since they have to meet certain other requirements.
My favorite part of the tasting was being able to try all of Ojai Olive Oil Company’s infused oils which include flavors like basil, lemon, garlic, and mandarin. I wasn’t at all a fan of the mandarin infused oil although the owner claimed that she pours some into her breakfast oatmeal. Jave and I couldn’t resist the rosemary infused oil, and since the company also produces balsamic vinegars, we bought a fig infused bottle.
In addition to its oils and balsamics, the Ojai Olive Oil Company also sells olive oil infused beauty products including lip balms, soaps, and fragrance free face creams. Since I have very oily skin as it is, it wasn’t hard to resist buying any of the oil infused facial products.
Although our tasting was somewhat short and to the point, overall, stopping by the Ojai Olive Oil Company for a tasting was a great way to kick off our visit to Ojai which is so steeped in organic agriculture.
*For more details about tours and tasting times, check out Ojai Olive Oil Company’s website.