Move over, olive; there’s new oil in town. True, walnut oil is nothing new — the French have been producing it since the 18th century — but in the last year, two raw walnut vendors at the Santa Barbara Farmers Markets have started producing 100 percent pure, cold-pressed oil from their crops. Unlike commercially produced oils, cold-pressed products do not use heat, which extracts more oil, but breaks down the flavor compounds and diminishes the nutritive properties of the nut. Commercial oils also often contain water, which is used to thin the oil, diluting the taste.
Cathy Oliver of Oliver Family Orchard starting selling her hand-pressed oil last fall. Her parents grow several varieties of the nuts on their 40-acre farm in Woodland, near Davis. Since Oliver lives here in Santa Barbara, she sells the walnuts at the Farmers Market, and because she had a small table press, decided to play around with raw and roasted oils. “My press is so tiny, it only makes two bottles an hour,” she said. The labor of love shows. Oliver’s oil is rich, unctuous, and akin to drinking pure, liquid walnuts. Don’t even think of cooking with this stuff; use it for drizzling, dipping, or for a simple vinaigrette. You don’t want to do anything to lose that incomparable flavor.
La Nogalera produces rich-tasting, roasted, organic oil from several different walnut varieties and farms in and around the Santa Rita Hills. Their Hibbets Ranch Lompoc oil is from cool, coastal groves of heritage stock, developed and grown exclusively on the ranch, while their Buellton Concord yields a sweeter product. The Rancho La Viña Cañon Orchard Blend is a buttery melding of three varieties.
Walnut oil is high in Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, as well as antioxidants and protein. It has also been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties, and studies now indicate that moderate nut consumption lowers the risk of heart disease, making most nut oils a healthy choice.
Walnut oil has a lower smoke point than some nut oils, such as peanut, meaning it shouldn’t be used for frying or most sautéed items, unless they will cook very quickly — marble-sized new potatoes are a good choice. The oil is also gorgeous when used for baked goods such as a walnut oil cake; to dress roasted potatoes, beets, or barely blanched haricot verts; or as a drizzle over good quality ricotta served with grilled bread, figs, and pungent baby greens such as curly cress or chicory.