Navigating the world of Fresh Press Olive Oil

Navigating the world of Fresh Press Olive Oil

We’re experiencing a sea change within the olive oil industry in the way consumers view and use the ‘liquid gold,’ and Sigona’s, through a partnership with Veronica Foods, is proud to be part of this movement.

I can remember when my mother started using more olive oil instead of vegetable oil. The change wasn’t instant, but it all started about the same time we finally convinced my father to get cable television. Before we knew it, the TV in the kitchen was tuned to the Food Network 24-7, and mom had traded in her trusty vegetable oil for “EVOO.”

Simply learning that famous chefs use extra virgin olive oil in nearly every dish was enough to persuade my mom to make the switch. It’s similar to how we make certain one of Oprah’s “favorite things” is on our Christmas wish list…if Oprah likes it that much, it must be spectacular and we too must have it.

Yes, olive oil did give our dishes a certain “fancy feel,” especially when we discovered you can mix it with balsamic, sprinkle in rosemary, and serve it with cubed bread for a chic appetizer – neighborhood parties were never the same. However, and it’s hard to admit now, we never wondered why. Why olive oil? What makes it different or better? Why is it the chef’s juice of choice?

Many of you may now be wondering the same thing. Even the Sigona family, with its Italian roots, used olive oil for years didn’t know all the ins and outs of the “liquid gold.” “The reason is simple, really, “said John Nava, specialty foods buyer for Sigona’s. “It boils down to you don’t know what you don’t know.”

John Nava has worked for Sigona’s for 32 years and as the demand for specialty, gourmet foods grew, his position evolved. Sigona’s morphed from a produce market to a specialty grocery store and produce market and recognizing this as a trend, Nava did his research to predict what the hottest items were, and most importantly, would be.

Spotting the resurgence of the olive oil trend early on, Nava connected with a small olive farmer in Fresno who grew about 10 acres of Mission variety olives and had them picked and pressed for Sigona’s.

“We brought in this olive oil about nine years ago and it was a big hit with Sigona’s customers,” said Nava.  Most loyal customers will remember this as our private label, pesticide free EVOO. It was buttery smooth with a long finish, and our customers loved it. But there was a problem with oil. After about 8 months in the bottle, it began to break down and I thought to myself, ‘what’s going on…this is a great oil!’ This point, however, is where my real education began.”

Nava discovered, much to his surprise considering the research and effort put into bringing in this oil, that he had been on the right track, but headed in the wrong direction.

“The Mission oil I was buying was actually great, but it was a late harvest oil, meaning it was harvested and pressed in late December/early January,” said Nava. “That combined with the chemistry of the Mission variety, the oil broke down quickly. Additionally, I learned:

  1. Fresher is always better: working with Veronica Foods allows us to know when the olives we use are pressed (generally 2-4 hours post picking) and the polyphenol count (polyphenols are antioxidants which protect the oil longer). We also control when oil is bottled to guarantee freshness.
  2. Olive oil is seasonal: It changes with the seasons like we do in produce. You can experience fresh oil year-round when sourcing the freshest olives from around the world.
  3. Bottle fresh daily: Olive oil stored in bulk lasts longer than in the bottle. Also, less time oil spends in the bottle the better.
  4. There are only 2 reasons you should buy olive oil: taste & health. We’ll touch more on the health aspects in a bit.
  5. Fresh EVOO is loaded with polyphenols: Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants found in oil that prevent cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease. A good rule of thumb: the higher the polyphenol count, the more healthy it is and the longer it’ll last once it’s in the bottle.
  6. Never buy light oil and extra light oil from a supermarket: Light and extra light olive oil is refined and has lost its nutritional benefits.

And the man who taught Nava and the Sigona family these lessons?

Mike Bradley, president of Veronica Foods which produces Delizia brand olive oil. Mike lives and breathes olive oil as a grower, mill owner and distributor, and has an umbrella of high-quality farmers in California and around the world from whom he sources olive oil for Veronica Foods and Sigona’s. In fact, he and his wife, Veronica Bradley, chief executive officer of Veronica Foods, are traveling through the Mediterranean and Europe to visit farmers and test the Olio Nuovo, or new oil of the season.

“Every culture that produces olive oil has a phrase for it,” explains Mike. “Olio Nuovo is the Italian phrase and Aceite Nuevo is the Spanish phrase. There is a reason they have a phrase, they know freshest is best.”

“Mike has forgotten more about olive oil than I’ll ever know,” said Nava. “Thanks to Mike and Veronica Bradley’s vision of how olive oil should be pressed, marketed and consumed, it’s the best partnership that Sigona’s has ever experienced. They share the same passion as Sigona’s for quality, customer service and being true to the industry, and make special considerations for us when scouting oil sources worldwide.”

Carmelo, Nava and I met with Mike in Oakland earlier this month for a plant tour and a preview of the brand new, just crushed, still green-in-color Arbequina olive oil from the Sacramento Valley. The Arbequina is the major olive tree of California and Spain and is considered to produce a very high-quality olive. Arbequina olive oil has a high fruitiness and balanced pungency. Read more about this oil below.

As always when visiting with Mike & Veronica, we learned more than we knew before, but the overarching message was just the same: timing is everything.  “When, meaning when the olive was picked and pressed, is the most important factor,” said Mike. “The what, how and where factors are also very important, but knowing when it was pressed and when it was bottled is pertinent to guaranteeing the best quality.

“We’re seeing a paradigm switch in the olive oil business, one we’ve acknowledged for a long time,” said Mike. “It’s like witnessing the rebirth of

olive oil. Growers, producers and distributors have a new understanding of olive oil as fresh produce: The product is best when perfectly ripe and pressed ASAP. Plus, it’s seasonal. ”

Olive harvest in California starts in late October. The European harvest and press starts in early to mid December and when spring and summer roll around you can expect to see varietals and presses from the Southern Hemisphere, such as Australia and Chile. As a result of our partnership with Veronica Foods which has relationships with olive farmers around the globe who maintain the “fresh produce” mentality, we’re able to bring in the freshest pressed olive oil just days after it’s picked and pressed to guarantee the freshest olive oil at its absolute best.

What’s more? These olives are pressed within hours of being picked, unlike some other olives that are shipped to warehouses for large supermarket distributors where they’re pressed long after they’re picked. Not only do these olives sit for days, the varieties are combined to produce large enough quantities for companies with huge markets to supply. Mike notes that there is no single variety, country or style capable of supplying the virtual river of olive oil required to meet the need of large, multinational corporations so they use combinations and oils from second and third pressings to meet this need.

Though already considered an expert on the cutting edge of the industry, Mike continues to look for ways to make better oils by experimenting with different methods of crushing and extraction to increase the health attributes, such as the polyphenol count.

As mentioned, there are two reasons you should buy olive oil: taste & health. Two of the most important health considerations of olive oil are the polyphenol count and the oleic acid content. Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants that can help remove free radicals: the organic molecules responsible for aging, tissue damage, and possibly some diseases in the body. Oleic acids are monounsaturated fatty acids which help lower LDL cholesterol, raise HDL cholesterol and fight breast cancer. It’s been discovered that polyphenols are beneficial for the user and the oil itself: the more polyphenols an olive oil has, the longer it’ll last before turning rancid. With this in mind, we list the polyphenol count on each and every bottle of fresh press olive oil!

We could go on and on, but we’ll save it for the next another olive oil exposé. Instead we’ll move on to round out this piece with recipes and a flavor breakdown of some of our new California oils you can expect to find at Sigona’s after the new year. One thing we’d like to leave you with is that no fresh press olive oil that we carry is better than the other. While they all have different polyphenol counts and flavors, the “best” is up to you and your palate. Just remember, fresher is better.

Mike’s favorite dishes:

Stuffed Piquillos Sprinkled with Picual

  • 4 roasted Piquillo peppers
  • 1 wedge good quality Italian cheese, such as Parmigianino Reggiano
  • Picual fresh press EVOO from Spain

Cut the top off the pepper and slide a small slice of cheese inside. Heat oil in a skillet on medium; add peppers and sauté for 30 seconds or until cheese is starting to melt. Remove, place on platter, sprinkle with fresh Picual and enjoy.

Tomatoes on a Boat

  • 4 slices of Italian or French bread
  • 2 tomatoes, sliced
  • Feta cheese (as much as you desire)
  • Fruity, green EVOO such as Arbequina

Pour a generous amount of olive oil in a walled serving dish so that it covers the bottom completely. Float the 4 slices of bread in the oil and top with slices of tomato and feta. Grab a napkin and enjoy!

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