The Virgin Chase: You Can Trust These Olives

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O Live Brooklyn, 60 Broadway (718) 384-0304

Americans have always had a love affair with the olive tree. While visiting the Italian Alps back in 1788, Thomas Jefferson grew very fond of this squatty, ancient plant and declared that “the olive is surely the richest gift of heaven.” When our first foodie president came back to America, he appointed himself the father of the first American olive colony and ordered olive tree seedlings. They arrived in Charleston in 1791.

Today, America’s “olive colony” resides mainly in Northern California, where it is producing some very fine olive oils indeed. The keen interest in the health benefit of olive oil worldwide has enticed many farmers into joining the so-called “Liquid Gold Rush.” There are now more than 50 olive oil producers in California, and farmers in Texas, Georgia, and Arizona are also diving into the gourmet oil business. Claiming that his state has a climate comparable to Spain, a farmer in Arizona has planted 43,000 olive trees near Phoenix.

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What’s fueling the olive oil fever? A 2007 article in The New Yorker magazine may have opened the door for more domestic oil production. In “Slippery Business,” by Tom Mueller, the story revealed that two-thirds of the oil from Europe labeled Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) was adulterated with inferior oils. Some were colored with added chlorophyll and beta carotene to give it that enchanting greenish golden hue. Recent chemical tests conducted by the Olive Center in Davis, California, did not fare much better. Some European producers have challenged these findings, but the simple fact that Italy sells three times as much “Made in Italy” EVOO each year than it produces, tells the tale. It has been said that selling fake olive oil is as profitable as trafficking cocaine.

One way to avoid getting fake oil is to shop at places like O Live, a specialty olive oil store located at 60 Broadway (diagonally across from Marlow & Sons). The husband and wife team of Greg Bernarducci and Elizabeth Weiss opened the store in the fall of 2012, specializing in true extra virgin olive oils and carrying about 15 varietals from around the world. O Live also has many infused oils that are flavored with blood orange, lemon, garlic, rosemary, and other aromatic herbs. The oils are stored in airtight metal drums, and you are encouraged to taste them before you buy. “I know my oils are pure because I get them from a reputable supplier—Veronica Food Co. They are passionate about their products. They visit the farmers and build special relationships with them,” Bernarducci says.

Before becoming an olive oil merchant, Bernarducci worked as a cable television producer. A couple of years ago, he went to California, where he visited an olive oil shop and tasted some locally grown oils. “I was shocked to discover how good they were. They were so fresh, so grassy and peppery. I’ve never tasted oil like that,” he says. Intrigued, he read up on the subject and was smitten by the romance of it all. He had found his calling. Now he wants to sell good oil and educate the public about its health benefits. Since opening the shop, he and his wife have conducted olive oil seminars, tasting sessions, and food and wine pairings.

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Greg Bernarducci and Elizabeth Weiss, proprietors of O Live, bring real “liquid gold” and balsamics to Williamsburg.  PHOTOS BY BEN ROSENZWEIG

How to buy good olive oil? These days, says Bernarducci, it’s best to check with trusted food sites to get the latest updates. Tom Mueller runs a website called Truth in Olive Oil, where he lists suppliers and shops he trusts. Since olive oil should not sit on the shelf for more than a year, check the harvest date whenever possible; the fresher the oil, the better it will taste, and the better it will be for your health. Heat and sunlight will quickly degrade olive oil, so make sure your oil comes in a can or in dark bottles. Contrary to common belief, the color of the oil has very little to do with quality, and not all EVOO congeals in the refrigerator. For products like olive oil and honey, where adulteration is rampant, it is best to check with informed and unbiased food blogs before making a purchase. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting good money on cheap oil and honey-flavored corn syrup.

At O Live, information about each oil is clearly displayed on the drums. You’ll learn the different varietals. Mission originated in the U.S., Picual and Arbequina are from Spain, Koroneiki is from Greece, Chemlali is from Tunisia, Souri is from Lebanon, Maalot is from Israel, and Leccino, Pendolino, and Coratina are from Italy. Bernarducci changes up his oils every few months, so his foodie customers can sample new oils from different parts of the world. Bernarducci said he has sampled some very fine oils from Chile and Australia, as well. Also listed is the percentage of oleic acid (it lowers bad cholesterol and blood pressure) and polyphenols (fights inflammation), and the flavor profile and harvest date. Because olive oil has a cooking range of 365– 410F, Bernarducci can even advise you on which oil is appropriate for cooking and which ones should only be used as dips or salad dressings.

Bernarducci says he opened his shop in Williamsburg because there are so many chefs and foodies living and visiting here. In addition to olive oil, it also carries balsamic vinegars, natural olive oil beauty products made by local cosmetologists, olive oil salsas and condiments, and Mediterranean spices. They even sell beautiful salad bowls made from the wood of olive trees. Somewhere, Thomas Jefferson is beaming like a proud daddy.