How to shop for olive oil

Take the confusion out of buying extra virgin olive oil with a few helpful tips. Plus, make these olive oil tea cookies with rosemary and lemon.

One-year-old olive trees on Longview Ranch, one of the Yolo County growers partnered with Cobram Estate in California.
Cobram grows 14 varieties with an aim towards the high-end market.
An iPhone selfie I posted on Instagram on our second tractor bed hayride back to our tour bus.
That's Peter Hunter, Longview Ranch's owner, driving the tractor.

My ass was being poked like a pincushion.

When I first hopped onto the tractor bed, I placed myself so that I was sitting comfortably on one half of a bale of hay. But as the stragglers in our group searched for a place to sit, my bale mate and I created a little opening between us so they could step up to get to some spots behind us. Eyeing the sliver of an opening, a skinny gal decided it was an invitation to sit between us, forcing me to scoot over and straddle the crack between two bales of hay, one cheek higher than the other.

I felt like a teeter-totter rusted in one position.

This is Blanca, or so I was told. (^_~)

Once our party was seated, some more comfortably than others, the tractor roared to life, exhaling a pungent smell that mingled with the earthy scent emanating from the hay. Determined to ignore the poking going on as I struggled to maintain my balance, I removed the lens cap, and raised my camera to my eye. Everything often looks different when looking through the lens of my camera. I find solace there. And so, camera to eye, I took in my surroundings and breathed.

We were snaking our way through an olive tree grove on Longview Ranch in Winters, California, passing 1 year-old saplings around one bend and full grown trees around another, all the while listening to Adam Engelhardt of Cobram Estates – our emcee for the day’s excursion – explain the intricacies of olive tree farming.

Truth be told, and ass poking aside, I was in my happy place. Outside, sun warming my skin, the scent of the earth filling my nostrils, and sitting amongst my peeps as we lapped up information.

Welcome to the start of the International Food Bloggers Conference 2017 edition.

Making our way to the booze. Cuz, booze! 
Lovely spread. Food bloggers + booze + food = lotsa camera action and note-taking.
Adam Englehardt, left, holds court, explaining the ins and outs of olive tree growing. Very informative!

California EVOO vs. European EVOO
There’s been a lot of coverage lately on the lack of labeling standards for extra virgin olive oil coming into this country. Many EVOOs from European growers, including Spain, Greece and Italy, are failing random testing here in the U.S. for quality and purity.

Here’s the thing: Olives are at their peak in October and November. This is when the olives are just ripe and just beginning to change from green to a light violet.

However, those old groves in Europe are massive. Too massive to harvest by hand and nearly impossible to harvest by machine so they wait until the olives are black and so mature that a good hard shake of the tree will cause them to fall off, usually in January.

By this time, the olive’s acidity level is high and the oil produced from them is bitter, lacking the qualities that make extra virgin olive oil a healthy food. To make the oil palatable it's either very heated – becoming highly refined thus killing off any remaining health benefits – and/or cut with another highly refined oil, like safflower or canola oil, to cover the bitterness. The misleading outcome is that the label may say Extra Virgin Olive Oil but clearly, it no longer is.

Brady Whitlow, president of Corto Olive Company, gave a wonderful presentation to us during our tour of Cobram Estate's Mill. Here's a video produced by Corto where he explains the difference between California EVOO growers and most European growers:

Our Way Their Way 3 min version from Corto-Olive Co. on Vimeo.

Extra Virgin Watchdogs
California supplies 90% of the domestically grown and bottled extra virgin olive oil and it has the highest standards in the nation when it comes to EVOO labeling thanks largely to the efforts of the Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC, a government agency under the California Department of Food and Agriculture) and the California Olive Oil Council (COOC, a trade association).

According to their website: the OOCC was created and is funded by California olive oil farmers who are striving to provide a better product for consumers and who wish to promote clear, simple and accurate labeling of California olive oil. All growers producing 5,000 gallons of oil a season must, by law, submit to the following:
  • A designated number of olive oil samples are collected by California Department of Food and Agriculture officials.
  • Samples are sent to an accredited third-party laboratory located in Australia* for sensory and chemical analysis.
  • Results of the third-party analysis are provided back to the producers.
  • In addition to the government sampling program, producers are responsible for having all of their remaining olive oil lots tested by a private laboratory.
  • The verified grade must be accurately reflected on product labels for California olive oil.
*The California standard is modeled after the national standard in Australia which has the highest standards in the world for EVOO labeling.

The COOC’s mission is to encourage the consumption of certified California extra virgin olive oil through education and outreach.

Buying tips: What to look for when shopping for extra virgin olive oil
According to the COOC, here are four tips to ensure you're buying the real deal:
  1. To ensure that you're getting the highest quality with the most health benefits, make sure the label says extra virgin olive oil.
  2. Look for a harvest date (or milling date) on the bottle. It should be within 12 to 18 months of the date you're shopping. 
  3. Look for either the OOCC or the COOC label on the bottle. These seals mean that the olive oil has been through California's stringent testing for quality and purity. 
  4. Olive oil degrades in light. Make sure the bottle you are buying is dark or is bottled in UV glass, tin or has some other kind of outer protection. Once you get your oil home, store in a cool, dry place away from heat sources (do not store on the counter and especially not next to the stove). Also, once you open your bottle, oxidation starts to occur (just like wine!) and the healthful properties start to degrade 6-8 weeks after opening so it's best to buy smaller bottles that can be consumed in that timeframe. Whether buying large or small bottles, be sure to consume within six months of opening.

Gloriously Unrefined Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Longview Ranch, our host grower for the day, is one of a couple dozen growers that Cobram Estate partners with. Cobram is unique in that they have groves in both hempheres: California and Australia. This gives them two harvest seasons a year. Harvesting their olives at their peak, the olives are sent to the mill, which they own, where they undergo sorting and crushing within 4-6 hours from harvest time in order to capture as much of the antioxidants and healthful properties of the olive.

Cobram Estate's chef, Kevin O'Connor, created these cute little noshes for us and of course, they utilize Cobram's award-winning EVOO. The mini carrot cakes were tender but the star was definitely the frosting. You can see in the photo that it's slightly green. It's an olive oil frosting. "Just EVOO and confectioner's sugar," said Kevin. And the cute little salads? I could have eaten all of them. So refreshing!

That's chef Kevin on the right. This cocktail he's making is an original recipe of his which, you guessed it, features Cobram's EVOO. It was one of the more unique cocktails I've had. Not that I've had many. I'm more of a wine gal myself. In case you're interested: The MacGavin -- To a shaker add 2 oz gin, 2 oz chartreuse, 1/2 oz Meyer lemon juice, 1 egg white, 1/2 oz Cobram Estate EVOO, 1/4 oz simple syrup, ice, basil leaf (smack it to release oils then add to shaker). Put top on shaker and shake vigorously until you no longer hear the ice rattling around and the mixture has become frothy. Serve immediately.

Unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t need to sit for months or years before bottling. Once crushed, the oil is separated from the pumice and is ready for bottling. Or in our case, tasting.

After our tour of the groove, we were driven about 20 minutes from Winters to Woodland, the home of Cobram Estate’s mill and bottling facilities in California where we were able to taste freshly milled olive oil, olive oil that had been sitting around a few weeks and one that was quite clearly an inferior oil.

The freshly milled was super strong, with a just cut grass smell and a slight tingling at the back of the throat (that, we were told, was the antioxidants; if your oil isn't causing that tingling in the back of your throat when you give it a sip, it's probably not very beneficial). I could clearly imagine myself dredging fresh focaccia through it.

The next had been open a few weeks; it was still rich, though, with slightly less of a freshly cut grass taste. The inferior oil, after the two better quality oils, tasted rancid.

I couldn’t even get a sip down.

Adam said that this rancid-tasting oil is what most consumers associate with olive oil and prefer because they don’t know any better. But once your palate gets accustomed to the taste of true EVOO with all it’s antioxidant power behind every taste, he added, it’s really hard to go back.

I have to agree. I’ve personally become a bit of an EVOO snob since my trip to Capay Valley last year.

Cobram Estate's state-of-the-art mill and bottling headquarters in Woodland, California.

Look at how green this freshly pressed EVOO is? And the smell when we swirled and warmed it in our palms?
Verdant! Like freshly cut grass after a light summer rain. Wonderful!

Cobram's success in producing unrefined, cold press extra virgin olive oil was a real strength for them in May of this year during the 2017 Health & Food Extra Virgin Olive Oil Awards Competition in Málaga Costa Del Sol, Spain. Cobram Estates California Mission Extra Virgin Olive Oil beat out top producers in Spain, Greece and Italy to be named the World's Healthiest Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

In San Diego, you can find Cobram Estate’s Extra Virgin Olive Oils at Albertsons, Bristol Farms, Gelson’s, Sprouts, Whole Foods, and Vons.

For more information

Find Cobram Estate on:

Buy Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Find more recipes featuring Cobram Estate's EVOO.

Baking with Cobram in my own kitchen
During our excursion to Longview, Cobram Estate’s chef Kevin O’Connor prepared mini carrot cake bites with EVOO frosting. They were delicious and got me thinking how I might be able to use the bottle we were sent home with in a baked treat.

I’m pretty well known for my shortbread and it’s many variations with different add-ins. I’d always wanted to try adding rosemary to it and decided this would be the perfect opportunity since rosemary, lemon and olive oil are such a natural pairing. 

Because butter is solid, with 80-83% fat and the rest buttermilk while olive oil is nearly 100% fat, some compensation is in order. So I blended egg yolks, water and olive oil together before adding them to my dry ingredients to simulate the composition of the one cup of butter I usually have in my shortbread. I got the idea for this here.

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Olive Oil Tea Cookies with Rosemary & Lemon
Barely sweet shortbread with a hint of lemon and rosemary pairs perfectly with a hot cup of tea. I prefer a white tea for this but a black tea will go just fine. The EVOO is the star here so be sure to use a good quality, preferably, Cobram Estate. For a sweeter cookie, reduce the flour by ¼ cup and increase the sugar to 1 ¼ cup.
  • 2 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 cup cornstarch
  • ¾ cup powdered sugar
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh rosemary
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 1 ounce water
  • 6 ounces Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 2 teaspoons lemon extract
Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a ¼ sheet pan (9x13) with parchment paper so it hangs over the long sides by about two inches on each side (these will be used as “handles” to remove the cookies from the pan).Sift together the flour, sugar, and salt. Whisk in the rosemary; set aside. Add the yolks and water to a tall glass jar or to the blending cup that came with your immersion blender. Insert the blender and pulse a few times to break up the yolks. Run the blender on low while slowly pouring in the olive oil. Continue blending until it thickens slightly. Add the lemon extract and pulse to incorporate. Create a well in the dry ingredients and add the olive oil mixture. Mix the dough with a wooden spoon until dough just begins to form. Lightly dust your work surface with flour then turnout the dough onto your work surface. Using your hands, lightly need the dough for 30 seconds, just until the dough holds mostly together. Place the dough into the pan and using your hands or a small rolling pin, spread the dough evenly across the pan. Dough should be about ¼-inch thick.Take a sharp knife and cut your cookies into rectangles. Place the pan so the short side is facing you and start by making one cut down the middle towards you, then cut each side into thirds. Turn the pan so the long side is facing you; slice down the middle, then slice each side in half. Prick the cookies with a fork.Bake the cookies for 25 minutes for a light, soft cookie or up to 35 minutes for a crispier, slightly golden cookie. Let cookies cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then use the handles to pull the cookies out and let cool completely on a wire rack before storing in an airtight container.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 24 cookies

FTC notice: As a Citizen Blogger for the International Food Blogger Conference, I received a reduction in my registration fees in exchange for agreeing to write a minimum number of posts before, during or immediately following the conference, topic to be of my own choosing. This is the first of those posts. As always, photographs and opinions are wholly my own.