Olive oil: Mining a liquid gold


Of all the traditions being followed this Thanksgiving, there's one ingredient that's been a part of family feasts for thousands of years: Olive oil. The Greeks and Romans considered it a gift of the gods. And while olives from the Mediterranean remain some of the world's finest, our Lee Cowan reports this morning that olive groves in California are keeping fans in THIS country well oiled, too!

We've been sopping it up for centuries - drizzling it over our finest dishes. And yet, olive oil's virtuous qualities remain, for many, a culinary mystery.

"I personally like really pungent, really bitter oil," said Mike Madison. "I mean, maybe it's the condition of my life. Bitterness appeals to me!"

Madison tends his olive grove the way it's been done for thousands of years - by hand. Not under Italy's Tuscan sun, but in the sun-drenched valleys of California.

"The best oil from Italy or Spain is great," he said. "But most of what winds up in the stores is not the best oil."

He's among a growing chorus of California growers who worry the international olive oil market isn't as virginal as the labels might hint . . .

"Extra virgin means that the oil must have zero defects such as rancidity," said Dan Flynn, the executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. "Rancidity tastes kind of like crayons or a catcher's mitt."

Extra Virgin doesn't only taste better, he says: It retains the olive's natural compounds.

But when Flynn did tests on some of the most popular overseas brands, the results were bitter.

"We found that 70 percent of the imported oil did not meet the international standards for extra virgin

Low end oil being sold at high end prices - part of an industry author Tom Mueller calls "scandalous" in his new book, "Extra Virginity."

"Nobody's watching the quality, so it's kind of a paradise for fraud," Mueller said. "Most people in America haven't tasted a good oil. And until the consumer gets a little bit more aware, there won't be this intense pressure to make sure that people are playing by the rules."

More than 98 percent of the olive oil consumed in this country is imported. But California growers are seeing an opening in the market.

Gregg Kelly is CEO of the California Olive Ranch, the nation's biggest extra virgin olive oil producer. He showed Cowan his facility which can hold two million gallons of olive oil. "We're trying to make this available to the masses," Kelly said.

His mission? To harvest an ancient crop in a very modern way, called high density farming - getting olives directly from the branches to the mill, faster than ever before.

The advantage, Kelly said, is "the speed with which you get that fruit into a mill, turned into olive oil and put into a controlled environment has a lot to do with the quality of the oil you end up with."

If you're not a foodie, this may all be a bit confusing - what's the big deal about extra virgin olive oil if it takes a trained tasting panel and lab tests to know for sure?

Well, the answer may be your health.

"There have been many studies that show that it helps as an anti-inflammatory and with heart disease and even breast cancer," said Deborah Rogers, who has spent more than 15 years making and selling her own brand of olive oil.

Her tasting room is often filled with those with curious palates. If you can't taste the extra virgin difference, they're told, their body will likely FEEL it.

"Demystifying extra virgin is something that we've been trying to do since we opened our doors," said Rogers.

No wonder the poet Homer called olive oil "liquid gold."

Sometimes bitter, sometimes buttery; pungent, as well as peppery. It's an oil with a thousand faces, enough for every palate.

For more recipes from this year's "Food Issue" click here!

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