Sunday, June 27, 2010

Perspectives in Olive Oil

 Photo courtesy of California Olive Oil Council

WASHINGTON, DC -  United States Department of Agriculture officials published new standards for olive oil in the April 28, 2010 edition of the Federal Register. The standards will go into effect on October 25, 2010. This is being touted as an historic achievement because up to now there have been no standards. All those extra-virgin, virgin, light, and other labels? Sheer marketing!  The new standards are meant to better inform consumers and also to weed out producers that mislabel their products and make misleading claims. The new regulations are a the result of the efforts of the California Olive Oil Council, which first filed a petition in 2005 requesting that standards be issued. Follow this link for the actual language from USDA

This is big news and I'm sure you'll be hearing more about it in the coming months. Gone are the romanticized notions of extra-virgin coming from the first pressing and and virgin coming from the second pressing.  The USDA has scientifically quantified the standards.  For example, the oil labeled U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil will contain not more than .8 grams per 100 grams of oleic acid. And that's just the beginning.

I have suspected for some time that since olive oil became a culinary darling, with the myriad products available on the shelf, we consumers are being duped. I've paid a lot of money for disappointing olive oil on many occasions, and have eventually settled for a couple of brands I can count on. I hate settling. I'd rather be adventurous and try new things. But once (or twice) burnt, twice shy. The best olive oil I've ever had came from a small estate in Tuscany. They only produce enough to sell locally. I bought a few bottles to bring home but once they were gone, well, they were gone for good.

We take olive oil for granted, but it's important stuff. As usual, when I read the news, I got to  wondering. It comes from the Mediterranean area, but where did it originate? Are there still wild olive trees? What other interesting historic tidbits are there about  "liquid gold?" -- as Pliny the Elder was reputed to have called it.

It turns out that olives are native to the Near East, especially in the area of present-day Syria and Israel. The wild form is actually a shrub and it still grows wild in its native range. The olive was one of the first trees ever domesticated, and has been cultivated for at least 6,000 years.  the oil was probably first used for lamps. Later on, its value as an unguent, especially when perfumed, came into vogue. It was later still that olive oil was cultivated for its culinary usage. By the time of ancient Greece, it was a valuable food, and an important product of Crete, as evidenced by large numbers of presses and jars that have been found by archeologists. Cretan oil was shipped to Egypt and elsewhere.

Pliny wrote "There are two liquids that are especially agreeable to the human body: wine inside and olive oil outside." In the 2nd Century, B.C., the Roman author, Cato wrote in his treatise on farming, about ripe olives being harvested by picking up from the ground after a "windfall" and the importance of washing off the leaves and manure before pressing for oil.

The Spaniards probably brought the first olive oil to North America, although English colonists were known to import it, as well, stimulating the Spanish olive oil industry. Franciscan monks planted the trees near their missions, and they soon realized that the trees did better in California than elsewhere in New Spain. Visitors to abandoned monasteries in California as late as the 1800's noted that the buildings were in ruins, but the olive trees were thriving.

These days, most US olives come from Northern California. Southern California is actually the prime climate, but land values from San Diego to north of Los Angeles have soared to the point that farmers were driven out of business.  In Northern California, olive tree farmers make much less than grape farmers, so the business is still endangered.

Personally, I think we should thank the California Olive Oil Council for their efforts to maintain high standards for such an important product. And I even think we should "Buy American" in this case, to help keep the California olive oil industry alive. We buy California wine - why not olive oil, too?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

What's Your Beef?

Lascaux, France - Cave painting of wild aurochs, circa 15,000 BC

Yountville, CA - June 8, 2010

Milling around on the lawn of the Villagio Inn in this Napa Valley town, sampling healthy beef dishes created by local chefs, I got to thinking about how important cows are to human well-being.  I was there because I had the great good fortune to be a speaker at the Live Well 2010 conference, sponsored by the National Beef Cattlemen's Association.  Following the opening meeting, which included my address on food & culture, we repaired to the lawn for the opening reception, featuring beef and wonderful Napa Valley wines.  I got to talking with a woman who owns 3,000 head of cattle on a ranch in central Nebraska. She was there with her adorable 9-year-old daughter, and she told me that it truly is a family operation, and that they care about their animals. She was scheduled to speak the next day and was delighted for the opportunity.

But where do cows come from originally? How could these docile creatures survive in the wild? It's a complicated question with an even more complicated answer.  Whole books have been written on the subject. In the interest of brevity (after all, this is just a blog) here is the short answer.

Cows are the domesticated form of a now-extinct critter called the "aurochs," from which we derive the term "ox." The aurochs was larger and more aggressive than the present-day cow, with large, lyre-shaped horns on both males and females.  With a huge, shaggy mane covering its enormous shoulders, it was an impressive beast. The aurochs' naturally ranged throughout Eurasia and south into the Near East. It was killed off by humans - through hunting, loss of habitat, and, ironically, the disease that spread from domesticated herds. The last aurochs died in the 1600's.

By 8,000 years ago, humans in the Near East, or "Fertile Crescent" as it became known, had developed fields of high quality wheat and allied grains. They had domesticated sheep and goats, which were a good source of milk, meat, leather and muscle power. The aurochs were probably attracted to the grain fields, and humans started to see them as potentially better sources of milk, meat, leather and muscle power than sheep and goats.  They were probably captured and the most aggressive animals were quickly killed and eaten. The more docile individuals were allowed to breed. Their offspring were even more docile and the process of domestication began.

The first cows were probably kept by priests, as milk was seen as a ritual gift from the goddess, according to the findings from archeological excavations in Anatolia. But once someone figured out how to yoke cattle to a plow, the stage was set for agriculture on a scale never seen before. Cattle helped the ancient Egyptians gain dominance and used their power to domesticate even more plants and animals.

Thanks to the Egyptians, we enjoy onions, garlic, green peas and other foods. The Egyptians also domesticated cats (some say they domesticated themselves, which makes sense to a cat lover) because the huge stores of grain attracted rodents. Those huge stores of grain and other foods could not have been cultivated without large, strong draft animals.

Meat cows were brought to the New World by the Spanish. Milk cows came with the English. By the time settlers reached the territory of Texas, there were feral cows living free on the range, descendants of escapees from the Spanish stock. They were big and fierce, with large horns -- and the process of domestication began all over again.

If you want to read more about the history of beef, you might want to read Beef: the Untold Story of How Milk, Meat and Muscle Shaped the World, by Andrew Rimas and Evan Fraser.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Ooooooo- It's Uzbek Cuisine!

Moscow, Russia

A plate of mysterious-looking Uzbek food. What is stuffed in those dumplings? (photo by Charles Mathes)

In response to the article about our picnic on May 15, 2010, alert reader Charles Mathes  sent a note saying  "I know from Uzbek food -- I spent two weeks in Moscow on business and tried a lot of restaurants. Our favorite Moscow restaurant was Cafe Babai (or something like that).  In fact of all the places and cuisines we tried from the various republics, Uzbek was the hands down winner!" Charles is a high-end art dealer, selling works by Picasso, Calder, and the like. He was in Moscow for an art show. In the interest of full disclosure, we went to high school together (Go Tigers!) If you're interested in purchasing a $100,000 tapestry, he's the guy to see at  or at least visit his website and look at the pretty pictures. Charles' and his colleagues were introduced to Uzbek food by their guide/translator/bodyguard, Julia Kalakova, a stunning and accomplished woman whose passion is gypsy dancing. Her pic is below, doing a little gypsy dancing in the Cafe Babai. (photo by Charles Mathes).

Back to Uzbek cuisine. If you will recall, on May 15, 2010, the Culinary Historians of Atlanta held a potluck picnic. Everyone was supposed to bring a dish that represented their ethnicity or an old family recipe. Glenn Mack brought a dish that represented his wife's ethnicity. He told a story of going to visit his in-laws in Uzbekistan to learn to cook Uzbek style. I wondered, what is Uzbek-style cookery? So, between Glenn's great story and delicious eggplant, and Charles raving about his experience with Uzbek food, I decided to look it up. Turns out, this is some fantastic kind of cooking. 

 Uzbekistan is a newly-emerged nation-state, once part of the Soviet empire, located in central Asia. It is a fertile region, reasonably stable politically, with an ancient culture and well-developed cuisine. 

The national dish is plov, which is Uzbek for pilaf. It's cooked by men. In fact, men get together just to cook pilaf. One of the nice things about this, in my opinion, is that men are doing something useful for a change, and it keeps them sober, because there is a rule that you can't drink vodka after eating plov. The men also hang out at teahouses, drinking green tea and eating plov.  If you are planning a wedding or other big event, you need to hire an oshpaz, a man who  is an expert at making plov.  An oshpaz cooks plov in a huge cauldron. In some cases, the recipe calls for as much as 200 pounds of rice, and is cooked in one enormous cauldron. It's possible to serve as many as 1000 guests from one of these cauldrons. (photo courtesy of

The basic ingredients are rice, meat, carrots, onions, and oil. But recipes vary with the region and the individual cook. There is a whole culture of plov in Uzbekistan, that I can only compare to barbecue here in the South. 

Plov is not the only Uzbek food. Uzbekistan is rich agricultural country with a temperate climate that allows for the cultivation of many foods -- a locavore's paradise.  Visitors to the country sometimes come back claiming that they developed an addiction to the bread, which is cooked in a clay oven, or tandyr. 

The photo to the left (courtesy of  shows a healthy-looking boy in Uzbekistan with lepyoshka, a round-shaped flatbread. Cooking bread in a clay oven gives it a distinctively crispy crust. 

Meanwhile, back in the Cafe Babai, Charles managed to get a nice shot of the kitchen, which, as  you can see, features a clay oven. 

Sometime, this blog will take a look at the history of clay ovens, but not today. And sometime it would be fun for the Culinary Historians of Atlanta to take a field trip to Uzbekistan, but not this year. 

Looking forward to your comments.....