There were no colorfully clad peasants taking a cigarette break outside the Hayward office park where I'd come to watch extra-virgin olive oil being pressed, so I had to assume they'd been replaced by machines. Ken Stutz, owner of Stutz Olive Oil and my guide to this arcane world, confirmed it: There are no more olive-pressing songs and dances -- just earplugs and hairnets.
We donned both and stepped into the milling room. Extracting extra-virgin olive oil requires washing and sorting the fruits; grinding them into a pulp; "malaxing" the pulp, or stirring it until the oils loosen; then sending it through two centrifuges. The horizontal centrifuge separates solids from liquids, while the vertical one separates water from oil. The final step is to put the cloudy oil through a polishing filter, which removes the particulates but also some of the aroma; or to let it settle for a month and decant off the clear stuff. Lower-grade, so-called "pure" olive oil is obtained by heating the solid "pomace" from the first centrifuge, and extracting it with chemicals.
Most of the olives in the Stutz storage bins were green and hard, just on the verge of ripeness. "This is the beginning of the season," Ken said, pulling out a mottled, reddish-green olive. "This is where I usually press oil." I bit into one of the crunchy green ones, and immediately spat it out, along with as much of the bitterness as I could expel. Table olives go through a complex brining process to remove that nasty bite, but for some reason it doesn't stick with the oil. What you taste in extra-virgin is the fresh, unadulterated flavor of the fruit.
We moved along the production line to the vertical centrifuge, and dipped our fingers into the cloudy, chartreuse stream of oil it piped out. Unsurprisingly, the oil extruded from the greenest fruit comes out vegetal, bitter, and peppery. It's almost too strong for the public. As the olives ripen, they plump up until 20 to 30 percent of the fruit is oil. But what the olive gains in oil content it loses in flavor, so producers keep the young stuff around to blend with later batches or to freshen last year's remaining oil.
Only 10 percent of California's olives are pressed into olive oil, and despite a growing market -- the state pressed 130,000 gallons of extra-virgin in 1998 -- domestic producers and importers like Stutz remain boutique operations, while cheaper European and North African oils continue to dominate.
Personally, Ken prefers the flavor profile of the latter oils to Californian ones, which can be grassy and pungent. The reason our extra-virgin oil tastes so distinctive is that, surprise, it's from different olives: primarily Mission and Manzanillo. These varieties, brought to the States more than a century ago, are primarily raised to be the sweet, black eating olive you find in cans and on your pizzas. A few producers have recently begun planting Spanish and Italian varieties in California, but oil from these has yet to make a splash.
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