The Making of a California Olive Oil Culture

Illustration by Maggie Klein



“Here in California, we are at the beginning of a serious olive oil culture.”
—Pablo Voitzuk, olive miller and expert olive oil taster

There’s a new devotion growing in many local restaurant kitchens these days. The inamorata is the golden-green juice of the olive, sometimes referred to as “EVOO,” an acronym used when one simply runs out of breath for speaking the alluring but long-winded name, “extra virgin olive oil.”

Among the smitten are locavore chefs who previously believed they couldn’t afford to use olive oil in their restaurant kitchens, much less one that is local and certified extra virgin. They are now discovering they can, thanks to a profound change in both quality and availability of excellent California product. Some are even proclaiming their relationship with specific nearby EVOO producers on their menus in the same way they announce the local farms that supply their meats, fruits, and vegetables. And this is appropriate, since EVOO is indeed a nuanced and perishable product that speaks of its origins and handling.

But the curious thing is the way the passion for California EVOO is spreading into non-lococentric East Bay kitchens. It’s being adopted by Italian chefs—those anointed with olive oil at birth—and by ardent Italophiles, who have been enraptured for decades by the best of the estate-produced EVOOs from Italy. So how and why did these loyalties change? It’s a love story at least four decades in the making.


Left: An olive oil “fusti.” Right: Maggie Klein at Oliveto.  Photos by Nikki Rosario



Maggie Blyth Klein, who founded Oliveto restaurant in Oakland’s Rockridge district in 1986, says she can still picture in her family’s mid-20th-century Southern California kitchen the little bottles of Pompeian. That bulk brand in 1906 became the first olive oil import to the United States, and for decades it was pretty much all you could get at your local market.

As that young girl grew into a very sophisticated cook, chef, and cooking teacher, Maggie learned to seek out olive oils from small, reputable Italian estate producers. But she found that promoting the use of olive oil, as she liked to do, was difficult, since the majority of Americans had little understanding of the product, and even went out of their way to avoid it while low-fat diets were in vogue. She describes scandalizing dinner guests by using olive oil in the Italian way, as a condiment, pouring a quarter cupful into her minestrone. “They were shocked and repulsed,” she says.

Undaunted by such reactions, Maggie Klein delved into olive history, culture, lore, and, of course, recipes as she wrote The Feast of the Olive (Aris Books, Berkeley 1983). Her publisher, L. John Harris, introduced the book by writing: “Olives and olive oil are so fundamental to the history of human diet that one wonders why no previous book has celebrated their virtues.”

Heading to Italy to research, Klein was able to immerse herself in a mature olive oil culture, but her interest also was fed through her employment as the senior editor for University of California’s Agricultural Sciences Publications. She recalls her joy on visiting a UC Davis agricultural experiment station in Winters: “Professors from all departments were camped out in the orchard, pruning and tending the olive trees.” She also harvested and cured the “tiny little olives” from the trees on the Berkeley campus beside Giannini Hall.


Left: The tasting bar at The Olive Press in Sonoma (Photo by Carole Topalian)  Right: On a visit in 2005 to Apollo Olive Oil in the Sierra foothills town of Oregon House, head miller Gianni Stefanini and his son Umberto were milling the company’s extra virgin olive oil using a traditional stone mill and straw mat system. Today they work on state-of-the-art equipment. Learn more at



In the last decade of the millennium, olive oil became a dietary hero as the International Olive Oil Council, Harvard University, and Oldways Preservation Trust came out with the Mediterranean Pyramid and Diet: a set of nutritional guidelines based on research correlating good health and longevity in the Mediterranean’s olive-oil-producing regions with high consumption of this prized monounsaturated fat. Simultaneously chefs, media, and food writers became enthusiastic about the product’s distinct flavor contributions, and many more Americans began traveling to the Mediterranean to experience olive oil in its homelands. Exquisite EVOOs became readily available to both consumers and chefs, thanks to dedicated importers and retailers, while California growers—and plenty of would-be growers—began to look upon their Mediterranean-like landscapes envisioning them as the scene of a modern-day gold rush like the one then unfolding throughout California’s best wine-growing regions.

At that time, Maggie Klein was still one of a very few local experts on the subject of the olive, and so she was often consulted for advice. She worked with Darrell Corti of the renowned Corti Brothers gourmet food market in Sacramento, who was nurturing the few remaining longtime California olive producers, such as Sciabica in Modesto, toward producing good olive oil. Klein found producers still pressing olives with the ancient technology that employed a stone mill with straw mats. “They were not well taken care of,” she now suspects, given that there was only a rudimentary understanding at that time of what distinguished a good olive oil from one that was defective, as well as about how profoundly production methods—and subsequent handling—matter in the quality of a given olive oil.

Another California EVOO professional who was educating herself at that time is Deborah Rogers, now co-owner and miller at The Olive Press in Sonoma. She describes a 1995 trip to olive mills in the south of France. “I was with 29 other newbie, wide-eyed, naïve producers and growers. None of us knew what high-quality olive oil was or how it was made, but when we went in one mill, I knew something was wrong—it stunk!” It was years later, as Rogers was perfecting her considerable and highly respected skills as a miller, that she realized the foul aroma was a defect olive oil professionals call “fustiness.” It arises when poor handling of olives results in anaerobic fermentation, causing the off-putting odors reminiscent of brined olives. This is one of many defects that will keep an olive oil from earning the designation “extra virgin.”

One of the first Bay Area producers to move to more modern technology was Nan McEvoy, the San Francisco Chronicle heiress, who used Klein as a consultant when she began planting olive trees on her West Marin ranch. McEvoy chose to employ the labor-intensive “Sinolea processing” method, which certainly was a factor in her organic extra virgin olive oils earning high recognition very early on. Since that time, production technology has advanced massively, and those who have purchased state-of-the art milling equipment often make it available to entire communities of growers.

In the late 1990s, two multifaceted entrepreneurs named Albert and Kim Katz became interested in olive oil production just as they were ending a successful run with their small, elegant Broadway Terrace restaurant in the Oakland Hills. They acquired a tract of good agricultural land in Suisun Valley and planted Italian olive cultivars. Albert also became involved in the formation of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), now one of the few organizations with an expert tasting panel that can provide “extra virgin” certification for olive oils able to pass a strict set of chemical and sensory tests. As the Katzes’ EVOO became available, it was greatly appreciated by Bay Area chefs and specialty food retailers, and in recent years their brand has been one of several notable EVOOs used at Chez Panisse. That relationship—in addition to similar ones with a few high-end purveyors—means that the Katz and Company EVOO output tends to be spoken for almost in its entirety even as it is being milled each winter.


In super-high-density production, trees are planted very close together and kept pruned to allow harvesters, like this Vinestar,to roll down the rows and quickly pluck off the huge load of olives.(Photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler)



Under ideal conditions, an olive tree can live and produce for thousands of years. The olive was an important source of cooking and fuel oil for the Franciscans establishing their California missions in the 18th century, as well as for the pioneers that followed, so it is no surprise that groves of hoary old olive trees can be found in many parts of the state. In the 1980s, the Wentes in Livermore and Lila Jaeger at Napa Valley’s Rutherford Hill were among the first to venture into commercial production of excellent olive oils milled from the fruit of those long-forgotten trees. More Livermore-area legacy groves were brought into production during the first decade of the new century as the Crohares renovated trees at their Olivina Ranch, which neighbors the Wentes’s property. Both of these Livermore producers have added newer plantings for production of varietal oils as well as custom blends. In nearby Sunol at Hillcrest Ranch, Kathleen Elliott works one of the old groves on Pleasanton Ridge, milling her olives at the Olivina.

East of the Altamont Pass in the Stockton-Lodi-Modesto area, one finds quite a few multigenerational Italian-American farming families producing EVOO. Sciabica’s olive oil operation dates to 1936, while the Bozzano and Cortopassi families have only recently added olive production and milling to their long-running agricultural ventures. At Corto Olive Oil, the Cortopassi family has gone into the relatively new super-high-density (SHD) approach that involves planting specialized cultivars close together and pruning them almost like hedges so the copious quantities of olives are easily accessible to highly efficient over-the-top harvesters like the Vinestar pictured below.

SHD production has become a huge cooperative push in California—led by our largest domestic EVOO producer, the Oroville-based California Olive Ranch. The aim is to beat out the market-dominating low-cost imports, which are often misleadingly labeled, of lesser-quality, and all-too-often rancid from mishandling. Super-high and mid-density plantings are showing up all over the state, and notably in the Capay Valley, an area famous for its enclave of organic farms. The hot days and cool nights in that valley are contributing excellent character to the Séka Hills Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a product of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, which has discovered olive cultivation as a new and appropriate way to respect their ancestral homeland. They have put in a large new olive mill that will soon become available to other local growers.

California’s olive harvest generally begins in October and in some places continues into the new year. When this winter’s harvest is tallied, it is expected to measure in at well over two million gallons of extra virgin olive oil, or double last year’s volume. This is the development that has flipped the switch for many chefs wanting to source a versatile, competitively priced, locally produced true EVOO.



Pictured here is Linda Sikorski, head buyer for Market Hall Foods and The Pasta Shop, who has been evaluating olive oil for over 25 years. Getting your EVOO past Linda and onto the shop’s prestigious shelves is like an event in the world food Olympics, and Linda doesn’t take in the local producers as special pet projects, since it’s all about good taste. One could say that her decisions influence producers. They certainly influence the company’s deli and catering kitchen in Rockridge (one of the largest such high-end operations in the East Bay), where chef Scott Miller works beside prepared foods manager, Sandy Sonnenfelt, an expert taster who serves on three tasting panels.

“About five years ago, the pressure was on me to figure out how to use extra virgin olive oil 100 percent in the kitchen,” says Miller. Today, there is only one cooking and finishing oil in use there: Bozzano’s “Generations” blend of extra virgin olive oil.

Marsha McBride, chef/owner of Café Rouge in Berkeley, is another who has made hers an all-EVOO kitchen. She relies primarily on the Bozzano Generations oil, but also buys some Katz, Corto, Talcott and Séka Hills EVOOs, depending on availability. Before opening her own restaurant, she worked with Albert Katz and also traveled in Italy, as many chefs were doing in the 1990s. Early on, she tried many of the new California oils, often finding them bitter, out of balance and too expensive. She and her executive chef Rick DeBeaord continue to taste and re-evaluate as products change and the options expand. The surprising thing for her recently has been finding that all too many chefs still don’t realize the importance of good oil in their food, as both a carrier and contributor of flavor. She describes an occasion when she noticed the same rancid flavor running through all the food she tasted on a certain restaurant’s menu, and on asking for an insider’s kitchen tour, found a low-quality rice bran oil in use for literally everything. “You don’t know how often I go into a restaurant kitchen and there’s that can of supermarket ‘olive oil’ sitting on the shelf,” she says, referring to the bulk imported brands that have not held up in expert testing.

“Tasting is believing,” says Deborah Rogers, who has been educating consumers in a public tasting room at the Olive Press since 2005. She concurs that chefs can be hard to reach, since they have to balance costs, and as she points out, “extra virgin olive oil is not the cheapest fat to put in the pan.” She adds that olive oil (except when it’s the newly milled olio nuovo) is not like the seasonal items chefs feature on menus. “It’s key. It’s an ingredient you use every single day, all year round. But chefs are now paying attention to the nuances.”

It was those nuances that Pablo Voitzuk was discussing with Massi Boldrini, chef/owner of Riva Cucina, when we met him in the course of Karen Yencich’s interviews for the chef vignettes accompanying this story. Voitzuk is an expert taster, as well as the olive miller for Pacific Sun, a producer in Gerber that stewards a very old grove and also purchases olives from other local growers. He was spending his small window of downtime before the launch of this year’s olive harvest educating the palates of quite a few of the same East Bay chefs Karen happened to interview. I was especially struck when Voitzuk very softly and deliberately made the comment that opens this article:

“Here in California, we are at the beginning of a serious olive oil culture.”

In pondering what that heralds, I imagine both a healthier way of eating and a more sustainable agricultural economy. There is no doubt that it means plenty of good eating! •



Eric Janssen says he was using “a very high-quality Italian” imported olive oil on the table at his Amber Bistro in Danville. But he had some doubts …  “Extra virgin olive oil is very fragile. You get a really nice oil, but it still came halfway around the world.”  He was in an ongoing search for locally sourced ingredients, and in side-by-side tastings with California extra virgin olive oils, he felt his Italian import “really did not compare.”  The California extra virgin olive oil he liked best came from olives grown and milled just a few miles away in Livermore, and so now he uses a special blend of arbequina and frantoio EVOOs designed to his taste by Olivina.  “The quality is so fantastic,” Janssen says. “You can taste the difference.”  Janssen showcases his California extra virgin olive oil for its character, listing it by name on the menu.


oil cruet

Photo by Nicki Rosario

Amber Bistro’s Vanilla-Thyme Vinaigrette

“We serve this with baby lettuces, sliced almonds, Bellwether Farms fromage blanc and fresh strawberries, when in season,” says Eric Janssen, who uses Olivina’s Frantoio for this delicious vinaigrette.

1 egg yolk
4 teaspoons mustard
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

In a bowl, whisk together egg yolk and mustard. Slowly whisk in vanilla and olive oil, adding small amounts at a time to ensure that dressing does not break. Stir in thyme and then add a little water to thin the vinaigrette as necessary. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Riva Cucina chef/owner Massi Boldrini (left) evaluates a selection of olive oils for various uses on his menu. His guide is Pablo Voitzuk, expert olive oil taster who is the olive miller at Pacific Sun, a Butte County producer. (Photo by Nicki Rosario)


Massimo Boldrini is a chef. His father was a chef. He trained in Italy where he first learned to master the foods of his region, Emilia Romagna. Then, all the regions of Italy. Then the European countries. Then the world.“What I do here,” he says of Riva Cucina, his restaurant in Berkeley, “is focus on Emilia Romagna. It’s one of the richest regions in Italy … where Parmigiana, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma come from,” he says.So, why would an Italian chef, trained in Italy, and familiar with world cuisine, choose a California olive oil?At first, Massi went looking for local products for a specific reason: “I wanted to give back to the community that is helping me make this place successful.” But it quickly became more than that. The quality of the California extra virgin olive oils was excellent, and the California Olive Oil Council’s strict qualifications for certifying California products impressed him as well.“It’s a good product that can be consumed by itself,” he says. For an example, Massi describes his gluten-free pasta made with garbanzo flour. It’s not on the menu, but you can request it, and he’ll serve it with any sauce on the menu. “If you want something unique, to taste the pasta, we present it with olive oil … warmed just a little bit in the pan—not cooked—then fresh black pepper and Parmesan cheese on the top. “The garbanzo beans … it comes out to your palate with the extra virgin olive oil.”


Riva Cucina
800 Heinz Ave, Berkeley



Tanya Holland with her EVOO-spiked collards. (Photo by Stacy Ventura)

Tanya Holland’s formal training at La Varenne École de Cuisine in France doesn’t really put you in the mind of California extra-virgin olive oil. But visit either of her two Oakland restaurants, Brown Sugar Kitchen or the new B-Side BBQ, and you’ll enjoy its fresh flavor in her interpretation of African-American soul food.“I’ve been using it since we first opened. I’m trying to use as many local products as possible … specifically high-quality products, so I never even considered something Greek or Italian,” she says about her choice of cooking and finishing oils.Holland used California Olive Ranch Arbequina. It’s in her house vinaigrette, her vegetarian dirty rice, ratatouille, and vegetarian scrambles. And it finishes the seasonal vegetable sauté and other specials.

Does she call it out on the menu? No, but, “It’s understood by our clientele that we use the finest ingredients.”


Brown Sugar Kitchen, 2295 Broadway, Oakland,


B-Side BBQ Collard Greens

Try using a fruity arbequina EVOO, or for added zip, use a Tuscan-style blend for more peppery and deliciously bitter notes. 

Makes 6 servings

4 pounds collard greens
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Wash greens, remove large stems and cut into chiffonade by stacking leaves, rolling up, and slicing into thin strips. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat in a large pot. Add garlic and crushed red pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is softened but not brown, about 1 minute. Add collard greens and stir to coat with garlic mixture. Add water and stir collard greens as they wilt. Place lid on pot and reduce heat to a simmer, cooking until tender. Stir in vinegar and remaining extra virgin olive oil, then season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.



Chef Paul Arenstam usses the Summer Kitchen house-made mayo on an array of inviting sandwiches. (Photo by Cheryl Angelina Koehler)

“Summer kitchen” is an outside building where families used to cook during the hot days of summer to keep the heat and mess away from the main house. That’s what Paul Arenstam and his wife, pastry chef Charlene Reis, wanted Summer Kitchen and Bakeshop to be for their Elmwood community: an extension of their own kitchen, with good home-style food for lunch and dinner, eat-in or take-out.Committed to great local food-craft products, they saw no reason why they shouldn’t also be sourcing a good California extra virgin oil.“Tasting really helps you understand what makes an olive oil different,” says Arenstam. “We found this particular blend—Pacific Sun, ‘Tehama Blend’—that’s versatile, buttery, and rich, with the fruit-forward character of a really fresh oil. After tasting a lot of European oils, I just felt that this was as good—and in some cases better.”


Summer Kitchen and Bakeshop
2944 College Ave, Berkeley


Summer Kitchen Mayonnaise

If you think you don’t like mayo, you might never have tried one freshly made with a good extra virgin olive oil. Quite a few items on the menu at Summer Kitchen and Bakeshop rely on this condiment, so quality makes a difference.

8 egg yolks
3 cups extra virgin olive oil
3 ounces Champagn vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Water as needed

Combine egg yolks, mustard, salt in a mixing bowl. Using the whip attachment at high speed, add olive oil to the yolks in a steady, slow stream so that it emulsifies into a creamy thick spread. If it becomes too thick, add a tablespoon of water to adjust consistency.



It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Luke Swanson, who just turned 7, tests out the soft-serve ice cream with EVOO and sea salt on the menu at at his family’s pizzeria. (Photo by Stacy Ventura)

You know you’ve hit the bull’s eye when your new neighborhood pizza shop can trace its lineage back to the legendary kitchen at Oliveto by way of  Dopo, Chez Panisse, and the California Olive Oil Council (COOC).“We always wanted to open a place … but it was never the right time or we couldn’t find the right place,” explains Melissa Swanson. But then she and her husband Peter got lucky when a spot opened up in their own neighborhood. That’s how Benchmark Pizzeria came to Colusa Circle.“We already had an idea of what variety of foods we like to use,” says Melissa, whose discerning taste for olive oil was honed when she served on the COOC tasting panel. The first producer that came to mind was Dixon Ranch in Napa, makers of “Regina.” “I had used their oil at Oliveto … they used it at Dopo, and it was beautiful,” she says. But Dixon Ranch is a small producer, and there was very little of the Regina available.Again, they got lucky with their location. Colusa Circle is the site of the Kensington Sunday Farmers’ Market. Melissa noticed that the Casa Rosa grass-fed meat booth also sold extra virgin olive oil. “I tasted it, and I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this olive oil is fantastic.’” And it had the California Olive Oil Council seal, and it was definitely extra virgin, and also organic. “Wow,” she thought, “double bonus!”The Swansons use extra virgin olive oil as a finishing oil for their pizzas, in their vinaigrettes, drizzled over antipasti, and as a special treat with a dash of sea salt over their soft serve vanilla ice cream. Yum!


Benchmark Pizzeria
1568 Oak View Ave,  Kensington



Part of the fun at Hot Italian is watching chef/owner Fabrizio Cercatore spinning dough. (Photo by Stacy Ventura)

So, is it tricky when one extra virgin olive oil has to work for everything on the menu?Not for Fabrizio Cercatore, chef-owner of Hot Italian in Emeryville and an expert pizzaiolo from the Italian Riviera.“The tradition over there is to cook everything with olive oil. It gives the taste for all the sauces,” he says, regarding the customs in Liguria, where he grew up. “My mom, and my grandma, they used to do it this way. I follow them.”So which extra virgin olive oil does Cercatore use for all their cooking, dressings, and in their house-made pesto at Hot Italian?“Our oil is Cortopassi,” he says. That would be the extra virgin olive oil from Corto Olive in Lodi, where the Cortopassi family employs the super-high-density techniques that have made California extra virgin olive oils price competitive.

“With this olive oil I find the right balance,” he says. “I like it because it is really Mediterranean-style. It’s not too strong, and it goes well with our other flavors.”


Hot Italian
Public Market, 5959 Shellmound St, Emeryville

Chef Matt Greco discusses olive oil culture with Wente (Photo by Cheryl Angelina Koehler)


Before arriving in Livermore to take the helm as executive chef of the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, Matt Greco worked in New York City, where he learned to appreciate the beautiful—and fabulously expensive—Spanish and Italian extra-virgin olive oils that New York chefs dispensed in drizzles to finish a dish.

“This is what we use for our finishing oils,” he learned, or, “this is what we use for this and that.” But nobody said, “I want to use the good stuff from start to finish.” The price of an excellent extra virgin olive oil was far too dear for that kind of thinking.

“I wanted a California oil,” he recalls saying to himself as he was first being introduced to the Wente kitchen. ”I was doing my tasting, and the sous-chef shows me the olive oil and I was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ and he says, ‘Oh, it’s from across the street.’”

Some of it was indeed from the Olivina ranch up the road, and some was from even closer than that. Wente produces their own extra virgin olive oil from olives grown on their property. Their “Oro Fino” field blend of lucque, manzanillo, picholine, ascolano, mission and sevillano varieties has been winning awards at California olive oil competitions for over a decade.

Greco realized that he now had an abundance of California extra virgin olive oil good enough to use for an elegant finish at the table, and to dress a salad, poach fish, sauté vegetables, and even incorporate into desserts. He could indulge himself—and diners—in a truly fine extra virgin olive oil, at will, on a menu.

Too much?

Greco doesn’t think so.

“People say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t sauté with it because of the smoke point,’ but the Italians and Spanish have been cooking everything in olive oil forever, and that’s why their food is so good.”

—Karen Yencich

The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards
5050 Arroyo Rd, Livermore


Photo by Eli Pitta courtesy of Wente Vineyards


Restaurant at Wente Vineyards’ Olive Oil Poached Halibut with Swiss Chard and Thyme-Lemon Broth

This poached halibut—a favorite item on the menu at the Restaurant at Wente Vineyard—takes advantage of Wente’s ready supply of extra virgin olive oil. Executive chef Matt Greco says that the fish may be poached ahead and stored, refrigerated in the poaching oil before reheating at serving time. The broth may also be prepared in advance, and you could try using a medium and peppery EVOO for an additional layer of flavor.

For the broth:

¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
2–3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small bunch fresh thyme, leaves only
1 ounce fresh gingerroot, peeled and sliced
Peel from ¼ lemon
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed
2 cups water
Juice from 1 lemon
2 teaspoons fresh ginger juice (may be purchased, or made by squeezing fresh ginger)
Salt and honey to taste

For the fish:

1 quart extra virgin olive oil
Six 5–6-ounce portions halibut (about 2 pounds)
Salt to taste

For the Swiss chard:

2 bunches Swiss chard, washed, ribs removed, rolled up, and sliced in ribbons
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Make the broth: Heat the olive oil in a skillet over a medium heat. Add the garlic, thyme, gingerroot, and lemon peel, and cook for 1–2 minutes, then add the fennel and coriander seeds, and cook 2 minutes longer. Remove the skillet from the heat, and allow to cool. Place mixture in a blender, add the lemon and ginger juices, and process until smooth. Pour into a saucepan; add the water and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes, then taste, adding salt, honey, and lemon juice as needed to achieve a good balance of flavor.

Make the fish: Place olive oil in a shallow pot and heat to 160°. Season the halibut with salt and place into the olive oil, making sure the fish is completely covered. Poach for 5–10 minutes, or until the fish feels firm to the touch. Cook the Swiss chard while the fish is poaching.

Make the Swiss chard: In a sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté the Swiss chard over medium-high heat until tender, about 3–5 minutes.

To serve: Mound a serving of cooked chard onto each dinner plate. Place a portion of cooked halibut on top of the chard. Pour about ½ cup lemon-thyme broth around the Swiss chard and serve.




Photo by Stacy Ventura

Jim Wimborough was accustomed to using imported extra virgin olive oils at the San Francisco restaurants where he worked before being hired as executive chef at Zut! on Fourth Street in Berkeley. So while he knew olive oil, he didn’t have any idea that there was good extra virgin olive oil being produced right in Livermore, his hometown. As a kid, he even knew the Crohare family of the Olivina Ranch. “We knew them as cattle ranchers,” he says.

Then, just after Jim started at Zut!, Charles Crohare stopped by with some of his Livermore estate-grown-and-milled California extra virgin olive oil.

“I tasted it,” Jim says, “and it was the best olive oil I had ever had.”

And that was that.

Wimborough uses three of Olivina’s varietal extra virgin olive oils at Zut!: Mission, Arbequina, and Frantoio. The Mission, a more robust oil, he uses in the kitchen for all of their dressings and for finishing pasta and pizzas. At the table, he pours California arbequina or frantoio varieties for dipping, since he considers it a good introduction for people who are often tasting a high-quality extra virgin olive oil for the first time. And diners agree: “It’s like a whole different experience,” he says. “People love it and want to buy it!” Happy to oblige, Zut! buys after-market wine bottles from a local wine shop. “We fill them up for people and we sell it,” says Jim.


Zut! on Fourth Street
820 4th St, Berkeley

Spiced Pumpkin Cake from Zut!

Photo by Stacy Ventura

Try a medium, peppery EVOO for this lovely cake, which will be appreciated on any winter holiday table.

Serves 8

1 cup sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch of nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup brown sugar
1 egg
½ cup (4 ounces) pumpkin purée
¼ cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 325° and prepare a 9-inch cake pan by brushing the inside with a little olive oil.

Sift together dry ingredients and set aside.

Cream together olive oil and sugar. Beat in the egg and then add the pumpkin purée, combining thoroughly.

Add the dry ingredients alternately with the milk, starting and ending with dry ingredients. Scrape bowl well to make sure all ingredients are incorporated. Pour into prepared pan and bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until the center springs back to a light touch.

Serve with candied walnuts (below), a generous dusting of powdered sugar, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Candied walnuts

1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoons water
1 cup walnuts, halves or roughly chopped, as desired

Melt brown sugar in a pan with water. Toss walnuts to coat. Turn out onto a sheet pan and allow to dry thoroughly before using.



It’s no wonder people are still talking about the all-olive-oil dinner Amy Murray hosted at Venus Restaurant in 2009 for her Slow Food chapter. The crowd of more than 50 sat down to a first course of olive oil crackers with fresh cheese marinated in olive oil, herbs, and garlic followed by a celeriac soup drizzled with olio nuovo, as the harvest’s new olive oil is called. The main course was halibut poached in olive oil served with a parsley-mint salsa, roasted baby carrots, braised leeks, and Bloomsdale spinach. An olive oil cake with blood oranges, blood orange caramel, and coriander Chantilly cream capped the evening.

“We could have done just a couple of appetizers, but I really wanted to explore,” Murray says. “I just went for it. It was a four-course extravaganza.”

Murray now uses several extra virgin olive oils from Pacific Sun. One she infuses with toasted pink peppercorns, chile flakes, and coriander to serve with bread. The others are for cooking or for use in salad dressings.

What’s next? Murray is interested in the way molecular gastronomy can capture the taste and texture of olive oil. And she will certainly host another olive oil dinner—this time open to the public—celebrating the 2012 harvest with a variety of olive oils. Watch for it in January. Check the website or give them a call.


Photo by Karen Yencich

Amy Murray’s Olive Oil Crackers

1½ cups whole wheat flour
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup warm water
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil (plus extra for coating and brushing dough)
3 teaspoons finely diced fresh herbs, such as rosemary, tarragon, parsley, or a combination of these (optional)
Maldon sea salt

In a large bowl, combine both kinds of flour with the salt. Slowly add the water and olive oil and mix the dough at medium speed for 5–7 minutes. (Use an electric mixer with a dough hook attachment or a wooden spoon.) The dough should be tacky, but if it is too sticky or too dry, add a bit more flour or water, respectively.

Shape the dough into 6 or 8 balls, lightly coat with olive oil, and place on a clean plate. Cover with a clean dishtowel or plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 30–45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450°.

Place 1 dough ball on a floured surface and with a rolling pin roll out to make it as flat and even as possible. Slice the dough evenly into cracker-size pieces and arrange on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Poke each cracker with a fork a few times to prevent puffing.

Brush lightly with the same EVOO, or for added flavor, brush with a bolder peppery oil. Sprinkle with the herbs and sea salt. Place into oven and bake until golden-brown and crispy but not burnt. Allow to cool before storing.

Revival Bar and Kitchen
2102 Shattuck Ave Berkeley

Venus Restaurant
2327 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley


Maggie Blyth Klein’s The Feast of the Olive (Aris Books, Berkeley 1983) is out of print, but a few online retailers list copies. Klein humbly dismisses her 30-year-old book as a naïve effort, but the reader would do well to note that its publication predates by three years the birth of the Slow Food movement. It was only after that time that the present-day interest in traditions of artisanal food production rather slowly unfolded. Klein explores Mediterranean olive culture from antiquity through its eventual appearance in California cuisine. The book is fun and informative, and it has lots of Klein’s beautiful sketches as well as recipes that herald the sophistication the author instilled as the inspiration at Oliveto restaurant.

San Franciscan Fran Gage, author of The New American Olive Oil: Profiles of Artisan Producers and 75 Recipes (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2009), takes up where Klein leaves off as she embarks on an in-depth look at the emergence of California olive oil culture. Gage sits on two of the tasting panels that evaluate California extra virgin olive oils for certification, and so has developed an understanding of both the flavor profiles of many styles of olive oil as well as the defects that occur in this perishible product. Her recipes reflect the traditional cuisines of the Mediterranean, as well as more modern styles.

Many heads were turned around after Tom Mueller’s New Yorker “Letter from Italy” of August 13, 2007 detailed the fraud going on in the world of “big” olive oil. That article, Slippery Business: the trade in adulterated olive oil, forms the core of Mueller’s newly published 238-page book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (W.W. Norton & Company). A quick read of the article online would suffice, had the author simply stopped there. It’s in the “sublime” that Mueller breathes in dimensionality.  He’s added a profoundly intimate interpretation of how this commodity—which powered whole Mediterranean economies for millennia—is linked to a pervasive cultural identity, as well as deep personal passions. His explanations of why olive oil is not like wine are especially potent.



Karen Yencich is a freelance food writer who cooks and eats in Berkeley. In addition to online columns as the “Berkeley Cooking Examiner” and a national “Food and Recipes Examiner,” her work has appeared in the Contra Costa Times, The Monthly, and Wednesday Writers: Something that Matters, an anthology of women’s writing.

Stacy Ventura is a food and travel photographer whose work has been featured in San Francisco Magazine, Food Arts, 7×7, Food & Wine and several Edible Communities magazines. She is based in Marin County where she can often be found at Willow Street Farms, which she cofounded with her husband, Brian Ventura. They call it the world’s smallest farm, but that doesn’t stop them from doing big things, such as hosting monthly farm-to-table dinners and an annual heirloom tomato plant sale. Check out more of Stacy’s photographic work and more about the farm at

Nicki Rosario is a freelance photographer working closely with local communities to produce imagery that represents everyday life to the fullest. To see more of her work go to

Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor of Edible East Bay. She likes to drink EVOO neat, and especially likes to enjoy it in the company of her friend, Roberta Klugman, whose help in the research of this article was immeasurable.

Photographer Carole Topalian is co-founder of Edible Communities Inc.