Olive Oil: The Bad and the Good

First, the Bad

I recently read the book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller. It opened my eyes to the shocking process by which most of the world’s olive oil is produced and sold. While we know much about the health benefits of olive oil, these benefits convey only via fresh, pure, unadulterated olive oil. Unfortunately, there is little chance the mass produced olive oil you buy at your local grocery store actually contains “100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil” as the label claims. Because of lax standards in regulating the industry abroad, and due to lack of truth-in-labeling requirements for imports to the United States, most commercially available olive oil is mixed with other cheaper and less healthy seed oils (e.g., cottonseed, sunflower, canola oil).

Furthermore, due to lengthy shipping times and dubious storage conditions, these inferior quality oils are often rancid by the time they make it to grocery store shelves. Consumption of rancid oils can be deleterious to health. But because the American palate has become accustomed to the taste of these inferior oils, we hardly notice the “off” taste or the adulterated flavor of the olive oils we typically consume.

Mueller educates the reader about how small olive farms can hardly survive in the cut-throat world of international olive oil production. The average consumer tends to base purchasing decisions on the lowest available price and does not realize that the product they are paying for is inferior. As long as consumers are unaware of the poor quality of olive oils they purchase and are unwilling to pay the true cost of quality olive oil, the industry is unlikely to change. And unlike the wine industry in Italy, which became highly regulated after a number of deaths occurred from adulterated wine produced in the 1980s, the olive oil industry has had no such calamity that has forced governments to pass laws and enforce regulations which would implement higher standards.

Now, The Good

In spite of all this bad news, there is hope! As consumers become better educated about the issues surrounding olive oil, small specialty shops have opened throughout the United States that specialize in the real thing. And if you are lucky enough to live in or travel to California, where 99% of the olive oil in the US is produced, you might even be able to visit an olive oil ranch and purchase it directly from the grower.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the 140 acre Pasolivo Ranch in Paso Robles, CA. Not only did I see the olive orchard where the olives are grown, I also received a tour of the milling facility. Afterwards, I was able to taste fresh oil from these very trees and purchase some high quality olive oil to bring home.

Pasolivo harvests their olives by hand in the fall. (It should be noted that most large industrial growers use machines that voilently shake the trees, damaging the trees and bruising the olives in the process.) After harvesting, the olives immediately go through a sorting and cleaning process before they are pressed. The olives and pits are pressed together in one ton batches, creating a thick paste. This pomace undergoes treatment in a centrifuge to separate the oil and remove any naturally occurring water. The oil is then transferred to stainless steel vats. Over the next several months the remaining sediments settle to the bottoms of the tanks and are drained off. Finally, the unfiltered oil is bottled.

The entire milling operation takes place here. Freshly harvested olives are weighed, twigs and debris removed, and then pressed. The pomace is centrifuged to separate the oil from the paste and remove any water. The oil is then routed to large stainless steel tanks where any remaining sediments are allowed to sink to the bottom of the tanks before being drained off. The unfiltered oil is then bottled.

“Olio Nuovo”

The early oil produced in the first two weeks of pressing is called “olio nuovo” or “new oil.”  It is highly prized by Italians for its robust grassy flavor but is extremely difficult to come by because of its short-lived and fragile nature. I was lucky enough to get to taste three of Pasolivo’s olio nuovo blends from the 2017 harvest. Comprised of different olive varietals, these very special oils were among the most delicious olive oils I’ve ever tasted. They were all dark green in color, with a fresh, grassy flavor.

The rare and elusive olio nuovo, or “new oil” from this year’s harvest.
This olio nuovo is a blend of three varietals of olives: Mission, Frantoio, and Lucca.

The Tasting Room

Pasolivo also produces flavored olive oils, all made with fresh, local ingredients. For example, the lemon flavored oil uses lemon peels that have been pressed to extract the essential oil which is then incorporated into the olive oil. The basil flavored oil is macerated with fresh locally grown basil leaves for a short period of time to impart the wonderful flavor of basil to the oil.

Tasters are encouraged to dip bread in various combinations of flavored oils and vinegars. Spice mixtures are offered to enhance the tasting experience.

In Pasolivo’s tasting room, visitors are given a complimentary tasting of all eleven types of oil they produce. In addition, they mix up their tasting repertoire with various flavored vinegars and herb/spice/salt mixtures from local producers to give visitors a unique tasting experience and to display the range of uses for their products.

This olive oil was fresh, fruity and pungent, far superior to any mass-produced supermarket olive oil. While its spicy, robust flavors might require a palate adjustment for some people, I loved the intense flavor and the kick in the back of my throat that this oil produced. In fact, knowing that this “kick” is exactly what honest olive oil is supposed to provide, I relished it.

As one might expect, this is not an inexpensive product. The labor intensive process involved in producing these small artisanal batches of liquid gold demands that consumers pay a fair price. Pasolivo offers a membership program where a 15% discount is provided to those agreeing to receive three shipments per year. Knowing that I am getting pure unadulterated olive oil makes this membership well worth the splurge. For more information on their Press Club, click here.

Upon joining Pasolivo’s Press Club, I was given this lovely burlap tote bag and a recipe book containing recipes using their olive oils and other products. With each shipment, I will receive new recipes to add to the notebook.

Since reading Extra Virginity  I have not looked at olive oil in the same way. And now that I’ve found a great resource for truly excellent olive oil, I will gladly support this industry. I encourage you to seek out local sources for high quality olive oil near you. Let us help create demand for the real thing so that oils of a dubious nature are not allowed to continue to flourish.

Pasolivo’s beautiful tasting room offers a variety of olive oil related products including bath and body products, handcrafted wood and ceramic items, and flavored salts, spices, and vinegars.

For more information on this topic, see the 60 Minutes expose, “AgroMafia” here. Also, Tom Mueller has compiled a list of the best supermarket olive oils at reasonable prices. To see his list, click here.

Note: I have not received any compensation of any kind from Pasolivo for this blog. All opinions are my own. I do wish to express my appreciation to Pasolivo for the tour and special tasting of the olio nuovo I received.

A Culinary Tour of Old Montreal

 

On a recent trip to the lovely city of Montreal, I felt I was almost in France–but without the long plane ride! Because my vacation would not have been complete without a thorough sampling of the local cuisine, I signed up for a tour called “Flavours and Aromas of Old Montreal.”

Our tour was led by the very enthusiastic and knowledgeable Lorna Schectman-Greenberg of VDM Global Tours. We headed to Old Montreal on foot to explore some of the best hidden food purveyors in town. Not only was Lorna extremely well-versed in the cuisine of Montreal, she also had extensive knowledge of the history, culture and architecture of the city. We were lucky to have such a well-informed guide to lead us through the charming cobblestone streets of Old Montreal.


The white pâté is duck foie gras and the darker pâté with the cornichon is duck and veal.

Our first stop was at “Marche de La Villette,” a French restaurant and butcher shop with a marvelous selection of gourmet meats, cheeses, and condiments. We sampled two types of pâté, both served on perfect slices of baguette. One was a blend of veal and duck, and the other, a duck foie gras. This tasting required me to make two exceptions to my usual dietary restrictions–veal and foie gras. I don’t normally consume either because of the inhumane treatment the animals typically endure in the production of these foods, but because it was part of the tour and as only two small bites were provided, I made an exception. I found these pâtés to be a little coarser in texture than most pâtés I’ve had before. They were hearty and substantial, perfectly seasoned, and full of flavor. Despite leaving the restaurant with a bit of a guilty conscience for the sake of the animals, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed both decadent bites.


Our second destination was a Portuguese bakery called “Cantinho de Lisboa,” famous for their pastéis de nata. These bite-sized egg custards in flaky crusts were luxuriously rich, but also quite delicate. The light crunch of the phyllo-style crust combined with the cool creamy custard filling was the perfect juxtaposition of textures. While the Portuguese population of Montreal is quite small, this bakery has made an indelible mark on the culture and cuisine of Old Montreal and is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

It is thought that pastéis de nata was created by Catholic monks at a Portuguese monastery sometime before the 18th century. Because convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes, such as nuns’ habits, there were many egg yolks left over. Pastéis de nata was created to make use of the excess egg yolks.

Our next stop was “Masion Christian Faure,” a patisserie owned and operated by award-winning French pastry chef, Christian Faure. In addition to the restaurant and patisserie, Chef Faure opened a cooking school at this location in 2013 to teach authentic French pastry making techniques in Canada. We sampled their macaroons. Given the variety of offerings, it was a difficult decision but I opted for the coconut flavor. It was delicate and light, with just the right combination of crunch and chew. Taking a cooking class here is definitely on my bucket list!

There was a variety of macaroon flavors to choose from including pistachio, cassis, strawberry, coconut, mocha and chocolate.
The patisserie also had a dazzling assortment of pastries and cakes.

We then trekked to a restaurant-bar along the St. Lawrence River waterfront called “Faste Fou.” Here we sampled smoked meat sandwiches, a signature dish of Montreal. While no one knows for sure who “officially” introduced smoked meat to Montreal, experts seem to agree that the dish is likely Romanian and Jewish in origin. Beef brisket is salted and brined in spices before being smoked and cooked. Sliced thinly, it is typically served on rye bread with plain mustard. It is often likened to pastrami, but it comes from a different part of the animal and I found the flavor to be a bit more subtle.


Our final stop was “Delices Erable & Cie,” a boutique that specializes in maple products. Quebec leads the world in maple syrup production and maple products are considered emblematic of Canada, so no food tour would be complete without a maple sampling. In addition to multiple types of maple syrup, this shop offered maple coffee and tea, maple candy, maple butter, maple mustard, maple gelato…you get the idea! I enjoyed tasting the wide array of samples that were available in the store. I purchased some of their maple pork rub and a cranberry-maple-nut topping for baked brie. I look forward to sharing these goodies, along with memories of my trip, with friends back home.


While not included in our tour, Lorna also educated us about two other important foods of Montreal: poutine and the Montreal bagel. Of course I would have been remiss not to give them both a try while there! 

There are gourmet versions of poutine involving things like foie gras, duck breast, and steak, but the classic version is comprised of french fries topped with cold cheese curds and hot gravy. Poutine cannot be considered a diet food by any stretch of the imagination but it is a filling comfort food apropos for fueling young hockey players and long Canadian winters.

The Montreal bagel differs from most bagels in that it is dipped in honey-water before cooking and is baked in a wood-fired oven which gives it a somewhat smokey flavor. It is served with cream cheese or butter and is typically eaten for breakfast.


The tour provided an excellent overview of the multi-cultural food legacy of Montreal. It was a delight to experience these foods and discover hidden purveyors I would never have found on my own. If you have the opportunity to visit Montreal, I encourage you to explore the unique cuisine of this lovely city. You’ll be glad you did.

Note: All opinions expressed are my own. I have not received compensation of any kind from any of the establishments mentioned in this post. 

Coffee Roaster Tour in Hawaii

To the left of the entrance to the cafe, they are experimenting growing coffee plants.

I recently spent a week in beautiful Hawaii. While my husband was cooped up in a conference, I was seeking out some of the wonderful food-related experiences available on the lush island of Oahu!

Because Hawaii is known for its Kona coffee, I wanted to pay a visit to one of the sources of this liquid gold. I discovered Lion Coffee, the nation’s first coffee roaster and distributor.  I was able to see how they roast and package their coffee, and I learned a lot about coffee history in the U.S.

Lion Coffee was founded in Ohio in 1864 by Alvin Woolson as part of The Woolson Spice Company. Mr. Woolson noticed that green coffee beans, shipped over long distances in questionable conditions, wound up being pan roasted in households, often resulting in burnt bitter tasting coffee. His experience in the spice industry gave way to “fancy roasting,” a more reliable and consistent way of roasting coffee beans.  He then ground the roasted beans and began selling the ground coffee in prepackaged one pound bags.

Woolson launched the first great advertising campaign in history by offering customers “promotions” with purchases–picture cards, pins, holiday items, and other trinkets. His promos created buzz about the product and encouraged customer loyalty. Demand became so great that Lion Coffee began distributing coffee through a mail order company. The mail order business was incredibly successful–so much so that the U.S. Post Office had to come up with a new shipping category for “bulk” shipments!

In their cafe, a display of antique roasting and brewing apparatuses dating between the late 1800’s to the 1920’s shows the evolution of roasting, grinding and brewing techniques.

Lion Coffee was purchased by Jim Delano in 1979 and relocated to Honolulu. They launched a website in 1999 and have been delivering coffee to loyal fans all over the world since then.

The master roasters start every day in the cupping room where they taste the previous day’s roast.

My tour started in the cupping room. In this laboratory-like room, Lion’s master roasters perform a cupping ritual every day.  Samples of the previous day’s roast are ground and tasted according to strict protocol for quality control. This daily step ensures that every bag that leaves their facility meets the high standards for which Lion Coffee is known.

My next stop was the warehouse where massive stacks of burlap bags of raw coffee beans were stacked nearly to the ceiling. Much of the coffee is the prized Kona coffee which is grown only in Hawaii. The favorable weather conditions, combined with Hawaii’s mineral-rich, well-drained volcanic soils, create the ideal growing conditions for Kona coffee. Lion Coffee is the largest roaster of Kona coffee in the world.

This is the parchment, or outer hull of the coffee bean. The hulls are very lightweight and look a little like peanuts.

The first step after receiving the coffee beans is to put them through a machine that removes the parchment, a lightweight hull that surrounds the coffee beans. The green beans are then placed in a roasting machine for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees to achieve the perfect roast.

The roasting machine looks a little like a flying saucer and works hard throughout each day roasting the beans that will make their way to stores, hotels and restaurants throughout the country. The smell is glorious!
The beans are constantly swirled during the roasting process to ensure uniformity in color and roast.
The bags are formed from a roll of flat foil lined film.

Once roasted (and sometimes ground), the coffee is sent to a bagging machine. The machine forms the bag from a roll of film, applies the label and a one-way valve. The valve releases the natural gases the coffee produces and keeps air from entering the bag. Any remaining oxygen is forced out of the bag by injecting nitrogen. This ensures that the beans stay fresh. Once bagged and tagged with their golden insignia clip, the coffee is boxed and shipped to various distributors, restaurants, and mail order customers all over the world.

This machine forms the bag from the flat roll and sends it off to be filled with coffee.
These bags await receiving their golden clip, a Lion Coffee signature feature, which helps preserve freshness after opening.

Lion has a complete espresso bar/cafe and a gift shop at the end of the tour. You can sample their various products, enjoy a beverage and a freshly baked pastry, as well as purchase bagged coffee (and tea) to take home.

I ordered my first “nitro-brew,” an iced coffee concoction infused with nitrogen gas to create small bubbles and a foamy head on top of the coffee. This technique makes the coffee richer and creamier than standard coffee brewing techniques and I found it quite delicious.

For a coffee lover like me, touring the roasting facility was educational and gave me a greater appreciation of how my morning cup of java is created. I purchased several bags of this delicious coffee and am now brewing my own Lion coffee at home.

If you would like to purchase Lion coffee yourself, you can buy it at their online store. https://www.hawaiicoffeecompany.com/lioncoffee

The last stop on the tour is their cafe and gift shop where you can sample all their coffees. Lion’s baristas brew up a plethora of delicious coffee drinks. And of course, you can also purchase bagged coffee and tea here.

Note: I have received no compensation from Lion Coffee for this blog. All opinions expressed are my own.

Burger Inspiration

We recently returned from a mini-vacation in the wine country of Paso Robles, CA.  In addition to tasting many wonderful wines, we also enjoyed several memorable meals.  Paso has plenty of well-known dining options but were were in search of someplace that wasn’t on the typical tourist trail. The manager at our hotel turned out to be a great resource, not only for directing us to wineries that excelled at the lush, fruit-forward red wines we most enjoy drinking, but also for restaurants.  Her top suggestion for lunch was The Cass Café at Cass Winery.

The Cass Café doesn’t look like much upon entry.  In fact, it is open to the tasting room of the winery and consists of some small round tables and metal chairs on a raw concrete floor.  Our server (who simultaneously conducted wine tastings between visits to wait on us) brought us a menu and made a few recommendations.  After our server told us that the Benny Burger had “changed her life,” I read the description and decided to order it.

1/3 lb of estate-raised, grass fed beef. Topped with house-cured bacon, Hook’s Paradise bleu cheese, horseradish aioli, pickled onions, and organic arugula, served on a local seeded brioche bun. Prepared medium.  Served with your choice of side salad or garlic parmesan potato chips with a garden basil aioli dip.

I enjoyed seeing the chef’s garden outside the winery. In the dead of winter there were only a few items growing, but seeing space set aside for a garden always tells me the value the chef places on fresh ingredients and flavor.

It was the right decision. This was no ordinary burger.  My first bite revealed a nice crusty char on the outside, juicy and pink in the middle.  The brioche bun gave it a nice sweetness, while the horseradish aioli and pickled onions provided just the right kick. The bleu cheese was creamy and the bacon gave it a hint of salty smokiness.  The arugula added the perfect freshness.  The potato chips were house made (of course) and were surprisingly delicious.  Topped with a generous sprinkle of parmesan, they would have been exquisite on their own, but when dunked in the cool, rich basil aioli dip, they were taken to another level!

This delicious meal got my creative juices flowing and I pondered how I could recreate it in a more sophisticated way.  Instead of hamburger, how about filet mignon?  What if I wrapped the filet in bacon and topped it with a bleu cheese-horseradish sauce? To upgrade the chips, I envisioned a flavorful and decadent mashed potato which incorporated parmesan and basil.   An arugula side salad would complete the meal.

I purchased two filet mignon steaks and wrapped a piece of applewood smoked bacon around each, securing the bacon with toothpicks.  I seasoned them well with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper and placed the steaks on a hot grill in hopes of getting a similar crust and char to the burger.

After the steaks had achieved some nice grill marks, I put them in a 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes to finish cooking.  (We prefer our steaks medium well, but you can adjust the time according to how you done you want yours.)

While the steaks were cooking, I prepared the bleu cheese horseradish sauce. I found a recipe online that seemed to have all the ingredients of the sauce on the burger.  Here is a link: http://www.food.com/recipe/blue-cheese-horseradish-hamburger-sauce-92443

I began the mashed potatoes by roasting a small head of garlic drizzled with olive oil in the oven at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.  The roasted garlic takes on a sweetness without the strong taste of raw garlic.  You can use all of the roasted garlic or just a little.  I used 4 cloves for this recipe and will  blend the rest into a salad dressing for later.

The mashed potatoes were prepared by peeling and cutting into 1″ cubes four large potatoes.  Place in a pot with enough water to cover and boil until fork tender. Drain the potatoes, and use a hand mixer to break up them up.  Once most of the lumps are out, add in the roasted garlic and slowly begin adding the ½ cup of half and half.  Then add ½ cup of sour cream.  Finish with 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese, a tablespoon of chopped fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste.  (Be careful not to overbeat the potatoes or they will become gummy.)

The meal was complete with a simple arugula salad dressed with a basic vinaigrette of 1 part lemon juice to 2 parts olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.  A nice glass of Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon was the perfect compliment.

Here are the results.  The flavors were very similar to the delicious burger we enjoyed in Paso.  Wouldn’t this make a nice romantic dinner for two, perhaps for Valentines’ Day?