Chef Franco Dunn sits at the SHED coffee bar intently engaged not with an espresso drink but rather, with a small plastic cup filled with olive oil. SHED pantry lead Debra Conti watches Franco carefully as he lifts the lid on the plastic cup and inhales deeply. He closes the lid and his eyes, thinking of what he’s just smelled. Then he removes the lid entirely and simply drinks the oil right down.
“I’m getting cinnamon,” he says. Debra inhales, thinks, and drinks, too. She nods. Cinnamon.
Cinnamon is not an unusual flavor profile for olive oil. Neither are eucalyptus, peaches, tomato leaves, grass, or artichokes. Like wine — like beer or coffee or chocolate or tea — the world of olive oil has its own descriptors, criteria of excellence, epic missteps, and plain banality. Franco’s job in part is to find the best. It’s a subjective and scientific exercise, both.
Founder and purveyor of the One World Sausage Company, Franco tastes and approves all the olive oils that we sell at SHED. A member for nearly 20 years of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), tasting oils is part of what he does for a living.
The COOC rates olive oils on a scale of 0-10, looking for pungency, fruitiness, bitterness, and rancidity. Pungency is the polar opposite of rancidity; bitterness and fruitiness can compete for mouth-feel and aftertaste. Some of these traits can be detected in a lab; most cannot. Human tasting remains the best way to rate and grade olive oils.
As with any agricultural product, olives can be negatively impacted by frost, fruit flies, and simple accidents of fermentation. Rancidity — a term that with olive oil generally denotes oxidation, heat exposure, and other production missteps — is extremely common.
One thing that Franco does not test for or remark upon is olive oil’s color. “It means nothing,” he says. Color can be more or less green depending on the mixture of olives used. It has nothing to do with pungency, rancidity, fruitiness, or bitterness.
(To learn more about buying tips, history, and lore of olive oils, go to our Good Food blog about them.)
After months of trying different oils, Franco’s final list is completed and we are stocked with his recommendations. Pantry lead Debra Conti has a recommendation of her own. “Don’t be afraid of your olive oils,” she stresses. “It’s OK to cook with it, it’s OK to heat it. Everything you cook is made better by olive oil. Use it!”
SHED 2016 Olive Oils come to us from:
Enzo Olive Oil Company, which has been farming continuously since 1914 and offers completely estate-raised and organic olives. Every aspect of the oil production is done on their property.
Filigreen Farm, based in Philo in the Anderson Valley north of SHED, has been held in a protected land trust since 2000 and is a biodynamic operation, meaning that the agricultural practices go beyond organic in protecting and respecting the soil and environment.
Frantoio Grove, a family farm outside of Gilroy that keeps all production onsite. Frantoio oils are the pungent Tuscan blends that Franco prefers above all others. As olive trees can live for centuries, them family has planted their trees on land destined to remain in a public trust.
HomeFarm, where SHED co-owners Doug Lipton and Cindy Daniel reside, provides much of the olive oil for our Café and house-made larder items. Culinary director Perry Hoffman takes it right from the tap. Planted to French varietals, HomeFarm doesn’t always produce enough oil to bottle, but always makes a good-tasting addition to our kitchen.
Laconia-Crete, which is in the Dry Creek Valley not far from SHED. Theirs is a California olive oil made by a family with deep roots in the Greek tradition.
Olive Leaf Hills, based in Sebastopol just west of SHED and provisioned with a large onsite mill that is used not only for its own production but for that of the neighbors, Olive Leaf is a local favorite.
Séka Hills, which is produced by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation of Native American peoples based in California’s Capay Valley who have 11,000 acres in agricultural production — including cattle, wine grapes, and olives. A gorgeous oil.
Tall Grass Ranch, which is situated south of the town of Sonoma. Its oil won a Good Food Award in 2014, the first year that olive oil was a category.