Friday, July 5, 2013

Education is Key at Chefs Olive Mix

For many of us that live in the Sacramento area, Old Sacramento is where you take out-of-town guests when they come to visit. We residents seldom go there except to attend an event, meet at a restaurant, or watch the fireworks. We've turned a blind eye to the kitschy souvenir shops and the period museums.

It was a bit of a surprise, then, when I stumbled across Chefs Olive Mix one day. Located on the corner of 2nd and J Streets, it's a store that the locals shouldn't ignore.

Upon entering the store you'll be greeted with shelves of gleaming metal cans, each labeled with contents of oils or balsamic vinegars. Beneath are the bottles and tasting cups. It's a bit overwhelming to the uninitiated, but soon you'll be greeted by someone to assist you on a new tasting experience.

Chefs Olive Mix was opened in December 2011 by Lisa Paskaly, a Florida transplant who switched from dentistry to retail. It's her attention to detail in both pursuits that is leading to a successful venture - and it all revolves around education of ultra premium olive oil.

"We approach our guests immediately because we want to be sure they have a positive experience with tasting what we have to offer. That means educating them," says Paskaly. "It's very similar to wine tasting. We want to show how to do it properly so they have the best experience."

Olive Mix sells ultra premium olive oil. "The olive oil you buy in the store is about a Grade C, D, and E.  The olive oil we sell is graded A+," explains Paskaly.

What does that mean when most of us just know about Extra Virgin versus regular olive oil?

Most people understand that Extra Virgin olive oil is supposed to be the first cold press from the olives. After that the fruit could be pressed a couple more times to get the lesser grades of olive oils. We've been led to believe that you must buy Extra Virgin to get the best quality and flavor.

But  you may have also read reports over the last year that have found that a lot of extra virgin olive oil is being found to be adulterated - either mislabeled, mixed with lower quality olive oil, or mixed with other oils altogether. According to Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, 70 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold worldwide is mixed with other oils and enhancers. Much of the testing was done just down the road at UC Davis

No worries about the olive oil at Chefs Olive Mix (COM), which is the best quality possible. In fact, as soon as the olives are picked, the clock starts ticking.

First is the quality of the olives - were they picked off the tree or were they gathered off the ground? Turns out that both types of gathering takes place and it greatly effects the olive quality. Paskaly explains that the longer the olive is off the tree, the greater reduction in polyphenols (antioxidants). "Plus the fact that if you are gathering off the ground, you have to deal with bugs, debris, and partial spoilage."

Note the details for each oil.

"We have agreements with all of our producers that the olives must be picked off the tree and pressed within 2-4 hours. The way we verify that is through lab testing. The olive oil is tested both in the country where it is produced and again, at The Australian Research Lab. If it is picked within the 2-4 hour window, we will be able to detect that in the polyphenol and free fatty acid levels in those laboratory tests," says Paskaly. 

When UC Davis did their research, they found many store olive oils with polyphenols ranging from 77-380 ppm. The olive oils at COM have a range of 142-700 ppm.
International standards
Free fatty acids  - no higher than .8%

Peroxide levels - under 20

Chefs Mix standards
Free fatty acids  - no higher than .3%

Peroxide levels - under 9
Another major difference is in the crushing. International standards say that the olives must be crushed at a temperature of 89 degrees or below. The ultra premium at COM is crushed at 69 degrees.

I asked about shelf life and realized I needed to go home and throw all my olive oil away. "Olive oil should be kept in dark bottles in a cabinet away from heat," says Paskaly. "Our olive oil has a shelf life of about 14 months. The longer the olive oil ages, the antioxidant levels decrease and toxic free radicals increase." 

To make sure they have the freshest olive oil possible, the store actually works by seasons and hemispheres. The Northern hemisphere olive oils (Spain, Italy, U.S.) are harvested around November. The Southern hemisphere (Brazil, Australia) are harvested March thru May. COM is currently awaiting the shipment of the Southern olive oils. 

There are many high quality plain olive oils, but COM's also carries infused and fused oils. Fused oils are when the fruit, say Eureka lemons, are crushed together with the fresh olives. Infused oils are created when extracts or herbs are added to the olive oil, such as when you see bottles of oils with herbs soaking in them. (Note: things floating in olive oils have been known to cause botulism. Use flavored oils that use extracts instead.)

Along with olive oils, there are a few other specialty oils as well: walnut, sesame, truffle and more. 

The other featured item in the store is the balsamic vinegars. "Our balsamics are all authentic and come directly from Modena, Italy, the birthplace of balsamic vinegar," explains Paskaly. "Unlike some in the stores, our olive oils have no thickeners, no artificial colors and no sweeteners." 

Yvette helps me taste
Through the centuries balsamic vinegars had been made from the caramelized grape "must" of the Trebbiano grape. The balsamic is aged in wooden barrels for years, during which time the fermentation takes place to convert the must to vinegar.

The balsamics at COM are Condimento Balsamics. This means that they speed up the process slightly by adding a starter of premium red wine vinegar to kick off the fermentation process. Otherwise, the process is the same with the same premium caramelized must placed into barrels.

As the vinegars age they thicken as about 10% of the water content evaporates each year. The vinegars are transferred each year to smaller and smaller barrels. These barrels have been used over and over for decades, meaning that bits of must cling to the slides, adding further flavor and dimension to the vinegars, producing the best quality.

COM's dark balsamic vinegars are aged up to 18 years, the white's are are aged up to 12.

Like the olive oils, you will find many infused flavored balsamics at COM. Imagine the Dark Chocolate Balsamic poured over a bowl of fresh strawberries. Or how about Dark Espresso Balsamic used to accentuate a glaze for your pork loin?

So now you have a better understanding of what you are tasting as you savor each one. Yvette shows me how to pair the balsamics with the olive oils. After tasting a pure olive oil and then a traditional balsamic, we begin playing. 

Yvette shows me that you need to swirl the cup on the palm of your hand to heat up the mixture and get them to emulsify together. Otherwise you would have the typical separation of oil and vinegar like you have when you pour them together on a plate for bread dipping. 

We start with the Tuscan Herb Olive Oil and pair it with a Serrano Honey Balsamic. The herbs are pronounced in the oil and then there is sweet/hot from the balsamic. I spot a Harissa (a Mideastern spice blend) Olive Oil and want to try that. We mix it with Sicilian Lemon White Balsamic and I am transported to Morocco. 

Once you have been assisted with a few pairings, you can play on your own. They have a full page sheet of suggested pairings to help you out.

While I'm there I notice an older couple who are obviously returning customers. I meet Gail and Art who come down from Roseville on a regular basis to buy oils and vinegars. Gail tells me that they love all the flavors. It makes the same salad taste different every day when you play and switch the vinegars. She's lost 65 pounds and Art has lost 91 pounds over the last year, all because they love to eat more vegetables with the flavored balsamics. 

If you are looking for a light, healthy bite to eat while in Old Sac, you can stop by COM for some Mediterranean fare. They serve salads, hummus, olives and a premium feta. "This is THE best feta that I import directly from France," says Paskaly. She plans to expand the menu soon. 

Paskaly has also made an agreement with the wine tasting room down the block. People can take her food items to eat while wine tasting. What better than sipping wine while nibbling on light snacks? 

I leave with a bottle of the Tuscan Herb Olive Oil which I used recently with a massaged kale salad.  I'll be back soon. I'm really wanting that Dark Chocolate Balsamic to put on my berries.

Don't wait for your next guests to visit before heading to Old Sac. Chefs Olive Mix is worth the trek if you believe in getting the best quality of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

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