'Liquid Gold': Olive Oil Replacing Butter

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With Memorial Day weekend finally here, many Americans are planning picnics and barbecues — and more than ever before, many of those salads and veggie dishes are going to be prepared with olive oil (search).

But this is not the yellow stuff in a can that Mom used to trot out on Italian-dinner night. These days, olive oil’s gone top shelf.

"Olive oils are where wine was 30 years ago," said Ryan MacDonnell, founder and owner of Round Pond olive oils (search), in California’s Napa Valley. "We have tried to make better olive oils, and people are responding that oil doesn’t have to be bland."

For the past 10 years, consumers in the United States have been using more and more olive oil, and they have become more discriminating as well.

In 1994, the U.S. imported 126,000 metric tons of olive oil, of which some 25 percent was extra virgin -- the premium kind, which is made in a chemical-free process that involves only pressure, producing a natural level of low acidity.

Extra virgin olive oil is also considered the finest and fruitiest of the olive oils, and is therefore the most expensive.

In 2004, America brought in 246,000 metric tons of olive oil, and nearly half of that was extra virgin, according to Bob Bauer, president of the Neptune, N.J.-based North American Olive Oil Association (search).

"People just found out about olive oil," he said. "They used to think it was just for fancy events or special foods, and people are finding out it’s for every day. Once you try it, it’s hard to go back, because it tastes good and it’s good for you, too."

Domestic producers are also working feverishly to meet the demand. According to the California Olive Oil Council (search), in Berkeley, Calif., there has been an average 20-percent increase since 1996 in olive-oil production in that state, where almost all of the U.S.’s olive oil is made.

In the 2002-2003 year, there were 265,300 gallons of the extra-virgin category produced in California. In 2003-2004, the number jumped to 306,065 gallons. And in 2004-2005, there were 383,050 gallons of California extra virgin — a 25 percent increase over the previous year.

"The words ‘extra virgin’ didn’t actually mean anything to people. Five years ago, people would come into the store and ask if we sold tea," said Rose Malindretos, education and communications manager for French-based olive-oil company O & Co. (search)

"It’s about educating the consumers, really changing their diet," she added. "Olive oil absolutely is liquid gold. It’s a very exciting time, and I can’t wait to see where we are five years from now."

Most say that what has greased palms for olive oil in America is a boom in Mediterranean cooking and studies showing the health benefits of the oil.

In November 2004, the FDA approved claims that the monounsaturated fats in olive oil are good for the heart. Chefs at leading cooking schools were among the first to catch on.

"Where before a lot of chefs who went to Johnson & Wales (search) (University College of Culinary Arts) or CIA (the Culinary Institute of America (search)) were always taught to use butter to start their sautés, now you’re starting to see standard training use a blend of butter and olive oil or just olive oil," said Mark Monaco, director of catalog and Internet sales at Philadelphia-based Di Bruno Bros (search).

"We’ve been seeing this type of renaissance over the last 10 years. Now the home consumer who’s a foodie has multiple styles of olive oils in their home," Monaco continued.

Aficionados say the variety of olive oils may help make it a food craze like that for wine.

Mario Rizzotti, Italian culinary specialist for Academia Barilla (search), an institute founded by the Barilla pasta company to promote Italian cuisine, even conducts olive-oil tastings throughout the U.S., much as a wine store might do.

"Warm up the glass to release the fruitiness, give it 10 to 15 seconds, bring it close to the nose and smell it deeply," he said. "You can smell almonds, artichokes, turnips, fresh-cut grass, fresh tomatoes, depending on the oil. Then sip, twirl the tongue, get it on all parts of the tongue then swallow. It should give some pepperiness or bitterness on the back of the throat."

Much like wines, oils can taste remarkably different depending on the types of olives used, the region and the vintage.

The "it" olive oil of the moment is made by Armando Manni (search), a director who worked with scientists the University of Florence to ensure that his Tuscan-grown olive oil is as healthy as it is delicious.

Manni olive oil, the most expensive on the planet with a price tag of 200 euros (about $252) a liter, is served at the top restaurants in the world, including Per Se (search) and Jean Georges (search) in New York City, and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry (search), in Yountville, Calif.

"When we started, we were just a super-niche product," Manni said. "We are also now a super-niche product, but the consciousness of the people has grown. There’s a big change in the diet habits of Americans, a reflection of the consumer knowledge of health and nutrition.

"There’s less consumption of lard and butter, and organic-foods sales have increased by 20 percent since 2003," he added. "Consumers of organic food are also great users of extra virgin olive oil instead of butter."

But the olive-based shockwave that’s sweeping through restaurants and kitchens across the nation may already be subsiding at its epicenter, some say.

Abbie Scianamblo, of Sorelle Paridiso (search) organic olive oils in Tulare Country, Calif., says the market seems to have plateaued.

Sorelle Paridiso has grown between three and seven tons of olives on their 88 acres every year since they began pressing olives about five years ago.

"There was an incredible demand about three years ago, when olive oil was at its height in California," she said. "Demand has evened out. There’s a bit of saturation in the olive oil market."

The slowdown in growth has convinced Scianamblo to move their business more into the olives themselves rather than the olive oil.

But fellow Californian MacDonnell was optimistic.

"I don’t see it replacing wine (Napa Valley’s major crop), but I do see it continuing to grow," she said. "It’s an untapped market. I suppose the butter people can be a little worried."