These are historic days in olive oil. In the last three weeks I’ve participated in several gatherings that felt to me like milestones in oil quality, none of which, I believe, would have happened even a year ago.
On January 12th, I spoke at the Olive Oil Flavor & Quality, a seminar in Napa valley California co-sponsored by The Culinary Institute of America and the UC Davis Olive Center, to educate buyers and chefs in the retail, food service, and food distribution sectors – people who aren’t buying olive oil off the shelf in supermarkets, but in bulk, often in enormous quantities, for restaurants, hotels, hospitals and elsewhere. I’ve been to many olive oil conferences before, but this the first time I’ve seen one to educate buyers who usually act on price far more than quality – finally someone is preaching not to the converted, but to those who often have little idea what quality olive oil really is, but buy vast amounts of the stuff. People who a year ago were, in most cases, asking exclusively for low-cost olive oil are now starting to ask about quality – and to shun fraudulent oils.
There were chefs, oil producers from four continents, importers, food writers, store managers, even a few adulterators in the audience! Paul Vossen, experienced agronomist and sensory expert, gave a great speech about how olive oil is made and where things can go wrong (which should be available at the conference website soon, along with other presentations), and talks and demos by top chefs Bill Briwa and Paul Bartolotta and by the Culinary Institute’s strategic leader Greg Drescher, highlighted a fascinating and challenging day, during which I saw a remarkable level of interest and wide-open debate. (See the Olive Oil Times’ coverage of the event here.)
A week later, on January 19th, at the first annual Olive Conference in Dixon, California, 300 olive farmers gathered to talk about working together to protect and grow their industry, through a federal marketing order that would set and enforce a tough new quality standard in olive oil, first on American-made olive oil, then on foreign product as well. This time, folks who until recently had preferred not to work together – and who often, in the fiercely independent way of farmers, had mistrusted one another – had now come together to plan a join way forward. A superb presentation by Gregg Kelley, head of California Olive Ranch, set the tone for the meeting, and the industry overview by Paul Miller, of the Australian Olive Association, was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen, drawing on his decade-long experience in the trenches of the olive oil quality battle throughout the world.
Then, after one more week, on January 26th, I testified with a number of others at the California State Senate hearing on olive oil quality, where the widespread problems in the industry, including rampant olive oil fraud, were openly discussed before a panel of state senators, all of whom followed proceedings with rapt attention. (One senator called this meeting the most interesting informational hearing he’d ever attended.) Watch the proceedings (Part I and Part II), including a magnificent outing of olive oil fraudsters by Mike Bradley, which brought down the house. (More here and here.)
These are just highlights from what has been a remarkable two months in olive oil. I’ll be writing more about each of these events in greater detail, in forthcoming posts over the coming days, but for now, I’ll say that America is finally taking its first real strides towards taking the lead in world olive oil quality. An enormous amount of work remains to be done, by oil-makers, regulators and consumers – and everyone in between – but momentum is building. Up with Truth in Olive Oil!