Skip to main content

Enjoy Magazine

California's Rich Olive Oil History

08/08/2013 11:08AM ● By Enjoy Magazine
The Greek poet Homer referred to it as liquid gold. Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, believed it could heal any ailment. And in the Book of Exodus, the Lord tells Moses to make holy anointing oil with it. What is this precious substance? Olive oil.

Olea europaea, an evergreen fruit tree native to the Mediterranean, made its first appearance in the New World during the 1500s when Spaniards brought cuttings from Spain. Over the next 200 years, the olive made its way north with Franciscan monks as they established the California mission system. The first olive tree was planted in California in 1769 at Mission San Diego de Alcalá.

During the 1800s, while gold metal was being discovered in the hills of California, “liquid gold” – olive oil, that is – was being produced at missions along the California coast. Once farmers realized California’s Mediterranean climate was ideal for olive growing, thousands of acres were planted with olives. By the end of the 19th century the California olive oil industry was booming. But when seed oils and imported olive oils saturated the market in the early 1900s, the California olive oil industry went bust.

Nearly 100 years later, health-conscious consumers began looking for an alternative to those oils. To fill the demand for high-quality olive oil, farmers began revitalizing existing orchards and planting more olive trees, especially in Tulare, Tehama and Glenn counties ‒ the state’s top olive-producing counties.

Since the California Olive Oil Renaissance of the 1990s, California’s olive oil industry has grown exponentially and its flow isn’t slowing. The California Olive Oil Council estimates that California will produce 2.4 million gallons of olive oil in 2013.

Pablo Voitzuk, olive oil expert at Pacific Sun Olive Oil in Gerber, says, “The high-density Arbequina olive orchards that many growers planted have contributed to an increase in California olive oil production.”

Voitzuk, who sits on the California Olive Oil Council and University of California at Davis tasting panels, believes that this is the beginning of an olive oil culture in California. Pacific Sun Olive Oil, Lucero Olive Oil in Corning and other California olive oil producers feed culinary curiosity by offering tastings of fresh oils created from Mission, Arbequina, Ascolana, Sevillano or Manzanillo olives.

But Voitzuk wants the public to develop more than just an appreciation for the olive oil varietals; he wants them to first understand the difference between defective oils and extra virgin olive oils. Collaborative efforts between olive oil experts, farmers and producers are bringing awareness to responsible production practices that will further improve olive oil and increase production in California.

“The olive oil producers in California are honest producers. This means the olive oil in California is pure juice from the olives, which is not the case of many imported oils that have been manipulated either thermically or chemically,” says Voitzuk.

Because there is little regulation of olive oil, low-priced imported oils labeled as extra virgin are being placed on grocery shelves alongside genuine, California extra virgin olive oils. This makes it difficult for California producers to compete.

Voitzuk says, “To make a good, honest olive oil you have costs that are unavoidable… you have to be willing to lose a little bit of the yield in favor of quality. When people get to taste real olive oil, to realize its freshness and its perfumes and exceptional flavors, they will be willing to pay more for a better product.”

Since ancient times, olive oil has been valued for its health and beauty benefits. And in modern Mediterranean cultures the wholesome oil is considered an essential element of the daily diet. Is it possible that olive oil–more specifically, California olive oil–could reach the same status in the United States?

“As more people make the connection between the quality of food they eat and the quality of their health, and when they find value in cooking at home with food they source locally, we will see a rise in the appreciation for real California olive oil,” says Voitzuk.

California has been referred to as The Golden State for its gold-filled hills and for the poppies that cover them. But now, there’s another reason to add to the list: California’s liquid gold.•

Local Olive Producers

Pacific Sun Olive Oil

Lucero Olive Oil

Isern & Sons

Red Rock Olive Oil

Corning Olive Oil

Moon Shadow Grove

Berkeley Olive Grove

West Coast Products

Penna Olives

Lodestar Farms

Butte View Olive Company (530) 534-8320