Food and Whine
Hometown Olive Oil Loyalty
Ever since that one little jug of olive found in the corner of the First Temple burned for eight days instead of one, olive oil has been political. The oil had to burn for eight days so the Israelites had enough time to make more dedicated lamp fuel. Oil for the Temple had to be refined a certain way, that took a week.
Even today, olive oil aficionados are very, very particular about different grades and processes of olive oil. According to Jen Wakefield—Etz Chayim’s youth activity director— Greg Matza, the cook in her house, keeps at least
four types of olive oil on hand, each one dedicated to a special purpose. “He cooks with unfiltered olive oil, but hummus must be made with filtered olive oil,” she said. “When I go shopping, I have very specific instructions.” Jen can attest to the political passion that olive oil engenders, on an international level, too. She innocently asked a friend who makes their own olive oil in Seville, Spain what the difference was between Spanish and Italian olive oil. “I got a three-hour lecture,” she said, “with gestures and yelling.”
Go to Whole Foods, and you will see at least 15 types of olive oil, from 6 countries.
(Of course, the guy in Seville is cheering for his “home team” olive oil.) According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there are over 1000 genetically distinct varieties (cultivars) of olive tree. And those are just the ancient ones. Today, there’s an extensive “farm system.” Nurserymen are constantly tinkering with olive varieties, breeding for different characteristics of fruit shape, ideal crop spacing, taste, etc. Two of the original Middle Eastern varieties are the Souri, which supposedly
came from around Lebanon, and the Nabali, or Baladi, which came from the area around Tyre.
In these modern times, the best varieties grown are exported around the world. But I found a local grower of olive oil who
has his crops in Sonoma. I asked Harry Saal what he planted in his orchard. “We have about 150 trees, split among four varietals, namely Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo and Pendolino,” he said. “This is a very typical northern Italian, Tuscan, mix, which gives a nice peppery bite to the back of the throat.”
Saal’s dedication to the Italian olive varieties is only natural. His wife’s maiden name is D’Esopo.