It was a wonderful thing back in the 1980s, when the medical community began encouraging the consumption of olive oil as a way to lower HDL cholesterol levels.
Though that doesn't mean we should all go out and knock back a pint or two of extra virgin - an excess of monounsaturated fat is still too much of a good thing - it's nice to know we needn't feel too guilty about indulging in what the ancient Greeks revered as a symbol of all that is noble and good.
Olives have been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean for thousands of years, but it wasn't until Franciscan padres planted trees here in the late 1700s that California's olive crop first took root (pardon the pun).
While olive trees flourish in our temperate Mediterranean climate, it is the integrity and dedication of artisanal olive oil producers, such as the Bariani family and Amigo Cantisano of Aeolia Organics, that are putting California olive oils on the map.
The Barianis emigrated to California from northern Italy 11 years ago. They purchased a plot of farmland near Sacramento, which included an orchard of neglected 75-year-old mission and manzanillo olive trees.
Though they had no agricultural background, in just six short years the Barianis - parents Angelo and Santa and sons Luigi, Enrico, Emanuele and Sebastian - have managed to transform those same trees into the basis of their thriving family business, producing 11,000 gallons of organic extra virgin olive oil annually.
The Barianis produce a robust, emerald-colored, grassy extra virgin oil made from green, immature olives. They also make a mild, sweet and fruity extra virgin oil made from mature black olives.
Extra virgin is the term applied to the oil from the first pressing of olives. This oil is the most intense and flavorful, while oil from subsequent pressings retain less of the fruit's essence, and are referred to as either virgin or pure olive oil.
The process for making the oil is referred to as cold press. The olives - pits and all - are put through an imported Italian crusher made of two granite wheels weighing 2 tons apiece. Once the olives have been crushed to a paste, they're hydraulically pressed to extract the oil and water, and a centrifuge then separates and remove the water from the oil.
The entire process takes about an hour and a half. By contrast, commercially made olive oils are processed in a matter of minutes by means of high-powered machinery, heat, and sometimes water. Such processing generally results in an inferior tasting product that is lower in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, thus reducing the health benefits and making the oil more prone to rancidity.
In general, extra virgin oils should be used when you really want flavor to be a focal point in a recipe, such as in vinaigrettes, when drizzled on vegetables, or for dipping fresh, crusty bread. Extra virgin oil has a lower smoke point, which means it begins to burn when heated to a high temperature. So, when sauteeing, it's best to use pure olive oil, which has a high smoke point.
The Bariani family doesn't refine its oil, which means no heat or chemicals are used during processing, both of which can destroy flavor. The oil is left unfiltered as a means of preserving flavor, which is why it appears somewhat cloudy in the bottle. Unfiltered oils tend to have a longer shelf life than filtered oils. They can last up to a year as long as they're kept in a cool, dark place.
While the flavor of an extra virgin oil is determined largely by when the olives are harvested, where the olives grow is equally important in lending the oil its characteristic flavor stamp. Italian oils from Tuscany, for example, tend to be herbaceous and peppery. French Provencal oils are lighter and more fruity or buttery. Spanish oils often have full-bodied, smooth, nutty flavors.
The Bariani family is part of a growing trend in artisanal olive oil production in California, wherein producers aim to create signature oils rather than copy the style of imported oils.
``It's a mistake to try to re-create a foreign oil in California," says Sebastian Bariani. ``There are too many factors - such as soil, climate, and the time of harvest - that affect the flavor.
``Like wine, you can never duplicate an olive oil. Our oil tastes very Californian. This is our home, and we want to produce a product that reflects that."
Bariani's Olive Oil and its cured olives, which are available in January and February, can be ordered by e-mail at email@example.com or purchased at the Berkeley, San Francisco Ferry Plaza, Jack London, or San Francisco Civic Center farmers' markets or at specialty food stores throughout the Bay Area.
In contrast to the Italian Barianis, Amigo Cantisano is a seventh-generation Californian. In fact, his Spanish ancestors helped plant some of the first olive trees in the state.
Cantisano is the founder of Aeolia Organics, located in the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Aeolia's organic orchards produce ascolano, sevillano, saracena, manzanillo, and mission olives, which are either cured and sold as table olives or turned into extra virgin and infused oils.
Cantisano takes special pride in the fact that all of his oils are orchard specific rather than blends, so the consumer ends up with a product that is traceable to an exact year and growing location with its own unique flavor.
While Aeolia's oils are unrefined and unfiltered, they are made exclusively from fully mature black olives that are cold pressed hours after harvesting. This yields a mellow, sweet, fruity oil that is yellow in color.
In addition to an extra virgin oil made from tiny saracena olives harvested from 100-year-old trees, Aeolia also produces an extra virgin rosemary-garlic oil and a mandarin extra virgin oil infused with satsuma mandarin oranges from a nearby grower. The citrus is crushed together with the olives to produce a heady, aromatic oil that is excellent when used in a marinade for a poultry.
In addition to the olives, all of the seasonings, herbs and produce used in Aeolia products are organic. ``I've farmed organically since 1972," says Cantisano. ``It's an environmentally sensitive way to treat the land, as well as caring for the health of both farmworkers and the consumer."
Aeolia Organics can be ordered online at www.aeoliaorganics.com or by calling toll free (877)-268-6563. They are also available at the Ferry Plaza and Menlo Park farmers' markets, at the Berkeley farmers' market in the spring, and at specialty food stores throughout the Bay Area.
Crostini with Warm Cannellini Beans and Wilted Green Gulch Chard
Recipe by Annie Somerville, executive chef, Greens restaurant. As featured in ``Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area" (Eating Fresh Publications, $17.95).
1 cup dried cannellini beans, about 6 ounces (or substitute Great Northern)
4 cups water
1 bay leaf
2 fresh sage leaves or thyme sprigs
6 to 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
6 cups green chard or kale leaves, coarsely chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons sherry or red wine vinegar
12 thick slices sourdough bread
Rinse, sort, and soak beans overnight covered by about 2 inches of water. Drain the soaked beans and rinse well. Pour beans into a saucepan with the water, bay leaf, and sage or thyme. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, until the beans are very soft, 35 to 40 minutes, skimming off any foam that forms.
Remove the herbs and bay leaf. Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. Pour the 1/3 cup of the liquid back into the beans, and mash with a fork or potato masher. Season the warm beans with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and salt, pepper and garlic to taste.
Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the greens, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook over medium heat while tossing with tongs to keep greens from sticking to the pan. Add a little of the reserved cooking water to the pan, if needed. Once the greens have wilted, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the vinegar, remove from the pan, and drain. Season with salt, pepper and vinegar to taste. Set aside, but loosely cover to keep warm.
Combine the remaining 3 or 4 tablespoons of olive oil with the last of the garlic, and brush generously over the sliced bread. Grill or toast the bread, spread with the warm beans, and heap the wilted greens on top.
Serves 6 as a first course.
Per Serving: 378 Calories; 15g Fat; 13g Protein; 48g Carbohydrate; 7g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 379mg Sodium. Exchanges: 3 Grain (Starch); 1/2 Lean Meat; 1/2 Vegetable; 3 Fat.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org