“‘Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks,’ one investigator told me,” wrote Tom Mueller in the New Yorker in 2007. Was he talking about white slavery? Bad-debt mortgage loans?
Nope, he was talking about the black market in bogus olive oil. It turns out the world is full of so-called olive oil that’s actually many other oils instead, from hazelnut to a low-grade oil that the Italians call lampante, or lamp oil; and the Italian olive oil you buy may originally be from Spain and merely bottled in Italy.
That’s the kind of thing that burns up Theo Stephan, owner of Global Gardens, whose store is aptly located in Los Olivos. Or, more accurately, such imposters burn up the oil, which is why olive oil got a bad buzz, especially thanks to a TV celebrity “chef” who will go nameless, as something you shouldn’t cook with, and instead just drizzle onto foods while serving. “Olive oils cut with other oils smoke, so they don’t taste good,” Stephan explains, “but you can even deep fry with real olive oil. You can even save your oil and reuse it five times without losing the good qualities like the polyphenols.”
Stephan knows of what she speaks, as her company has just celebrated its 10th anniversary of certified organic olive harvests. She gets the fruit (yes, olives are fruit) from 2,000 trees on a spectacular plot of land north of Los Alamos currently owned by Au Bon Climat Winery’s Jim Clendenen. Like that esteemed winemaker, Stephan relishes varietals and terroir, pleased by the sage characteristics of the Mission olives on one sagebrush-covered hill, or pointing out that you can taste the marine layer in one foggier year’s oils.
She also refuses to pick an olive before its time, which means prime harvest is now, in December, when her mail-order and corporate business, in particular, is crazy for the holidays. “We might be doing a late-harvest oil in January,” she said. “The darker the fruit, the more flavorful the olive oil.” For Stephan admits many California oils are too bitter for her (which signals the olives were picked early), claiming, “I like the oils of my ancestry in Greece, which are more buttery and mild.”
Again, such oil is perfect for cooking, so it’s little surprise Stephan is also at work on a cookbook, Olive Oil & Vinegar for Life, due out from Skyhorse Publishing in October 2011. At a recent lunch, she and her team prepared dishes from the work-in-progress, and all highlighted her fine oils and the region’s produce, from avocados to chanterelles. “Picking the right olive oil is like pairing wine with food,” she insisted, “but people are just getting educated.” Stephan will certainly help lead the way in that process, especially when she pulls off something clever like a chocolate sauce with olive oil, not butter, to drizzle about a tangerine poached in olive oil and drizzled with a Global Gardens black currant champagne vinegar reduction. (Oh, she does admit she actually sells more vinegar than olive oil.)
It almost often seems she’s as eager to right misconceptions as to sell her products, which even range to olive oil soaps and Global Peace Snackmix, which was chosen by the Sierra Club as one of the three best trail mixes in the U.S. She asserted, for instance, that her 2009 oil is tasting wonderful now, saying, “If it’s a good olive oil, if it’s really extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), it’s good two, two-and-a-half years.” But while that shelf life seems surprisingly long, she refuses to sell infused oils. “They go rancid too quickly because you’ve added acid to the oil,” she explained. “Just do it yourself overnight with garlic or herbs.” The Meyer Lemon EVOO she sells isn’t infused—lemon rinds are actually pressed with the olives when the oil is made. Turns out that cleans the press, too, so everyone is happy.
No one is more so than Stephan herself, though, who boasts of her extra virgin olive oil winning deals at the L.A. County Fair nine straight years and who can claim even in the turgid economy to have had her business grow more than 30 percent in each of the last two years. With all her products and her soon-to-be-published cookbook, she’ll be putting her “Caliterranean” (a term she’s coined) food front-and-center for years to come.
Discover a world of oils, vinegars, and other treats at Global Gardens (2477 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos, 693-1600, globalgardensonline.com).