When I think of olive oil, a picture suitable for a postcard comes to mind: rows of olive groves, pasta figgoli, Pavarotti singing, and Grandma Garone rubbing olive oil on the heads of my father, Vincenzo, and his brother, Francisco. Their hair would take on the Italian look: dark and sheen, slicked back, reminiscent of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Grandpa Garone owned acres of olive groves in a small village outside of Naples in Southern Italy. Each day, his workers collected the olives and made batches of fresh olive oil. When my grandparents came to America in 1925, they smuggled in as much olive oil as they could carry—12 gallons worth—for fear they would find nothing like it here.
Pungent, thick, and drab to emerald green in color, olive oil comes from the fleshy pulp of the fruit of an evergreen tree grown exclusively in temperate climates: Spain, Southern Italy, Greece, and, more recently, California. In 1775, the first California olive trees were planted around the state at the various Spanish missions. Today, California’s olive oil industry constitutes less than 0.5 percent of world production because only 3 percent of the 110,000 tons grown in California is used to make olive oil. The rest is canned and consumed as olives; preserving the olives costs less and is more time efficient than pressing for oil. California has four major varieties of olive: Manzanillo, Mission, Sevillano, and Ascalano. The Mission, named for the Spanish missionaries who introduced it, is most commonly used to make oil because of its high oil content and its “low pit to flesh ratio.” More than 300 other varieties of olives are grown in California. Sounding like female characters in a Fellini film...
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... United States, it is unique, compared to the bread and butter usually served in Italian restaurants. By serving the oil with the bread, Kuleto’s is supposedly emulating Italian culture, at a pretty high price. Would this practice be so popular if olive oil tasted more like Crisco?
The distinctive flavor, as well as the romantic and pastoral images conjured up by traditional strong olive oils, make this oil a winner in today’s overflowing market. Even the painter Renoir had something to say about olives: “Regardez cette lumiere dans les oliviers: Ça brille comme un diamant.” (Look at the light in the olive trees: it is brilliant like a diamond.) It is the oil that makes them shine like diamonds. And it is the bucolic images of the Italian countryside that will draw consumers back again and again to the richness of olive oil, both in flavor and on the body.
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