December 31, 2003
"Lo Carb" seemed to be the mantra at this year's NASFT food show in San Francisco. The Atkins and Zone diets are affecting the nation's food preferences and marketers are quickly changing labels and claims to suit. Santa Barbara Olive Oil booth workers said they were surprised to find out that even olives were low carbohydrate, so were duly informing attendees.
Every year California olive oil producers buy booth space to show their newest products to potential wholesalers, distributors and retailers. A savvy deal made at the show can put a small food company on the map. Retailers who want novel products and to follow the latest consumer fads scrutinize product segments, taste, packaging and of course price. The three day show can be exhausting for buyers and sellers. Attendees need to bring a cast iron stomach and plenty of Maalox. One thousand exhibitors showed over 50,000 products.
This year there was a huge upsurge in premium olive oils from around the world. There is usually a good number of olive oil companies represented in the Italian and Spanish national pavilions but this year there were many domestic importers who were showing off a premium oil from their "grandfather's home town in the old country". One after another described how producers of high quality oil in Greece, Turkey, and Spain are tired of selling their carefully tended and pressed oil to the large Italian blenders at commodity prices. They were hungry for any way to get these excellent small batch oils into the US retail chain.
Many small French producers were present, including several from the A.O.C. Ballee des Baux de Provence. An oil from that area won an IOOC Mario Solas award last year.
While last year saw one Australian producer, this year there were many. Gwydir Grove offered an extra virgin olive oil made with native Australian bush herbs. Franklin River Extra Virgin olive oil claimed acidity of .18% and gold medals in local competition.
An importer selling an excellent Southern Italian oil attributed its intense taste to an unusual variety: Brocanica, and the dry weather which hit Europe last year. Single estate and single varietal oils were common this year. Other interesting single varietal oils were Picual, Salonesque, Aglandau, Athenolia, Koroneiki, Lechin and Nocellara del Belce
O Olive Oil had their stylish labeling displayed and were promoting the antioxidants in their ruby grapefruit flavored olive oil.
Fruit oil producers were presented with a labeling dilemma this year. Oil made by crushing the fruit with olives cannot be called olive oil according to the world's largest oil standards body, the IOOC. Producers who are members of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) have signed an agreement to support the IOOC rules. Technically, oil made from fresh lemons crushed with olives should be labeled "lemon fruit oil". An Italian importer had such an oil labeled "Extra Virgin Olive Oil from olives pressed with fresh lemons". He admitted that the same oil could not be labeled as olive oil anywhere in the EU but because the US does not support the IOOC, it was not illegal here.
To be labeled "olive oil", nothing can have been added to the oil. Several COOC members, including board members, displayed flavored oils which, while not claiming to be extra virgin, were labeled as olive oil. When COOC President Albert Katz was asked about this apparent infraction, he said that a more descriptive term than allowed by the IOOC was needed for this category.
Other labeling observations: bottles of California Garden Olive Oil were filled with olive oil from Spanish gardens according to the vendor. They didn't see the irony as California is not a legal appellation. Pending country of origin labeling rules may pressure some vendors with California in their name to think about using a California oil.
A "Kalamata olive oil" was confusingly labeled as product of Italy. When the importer was asked if it was from the Kalamata area of Greece or made from Kalamata variety olives they said neither; it was just a "style" of oil!
Herb flavored oils were abundant as usual. Wildly Delicious had a unique basil and garlic infused Turkish olive oil. Private Harvest had a large line of specialty dippers. Their latest is the Parmesan dipper. Some of their dippers are made with California olive oil from the Modesto area. Tulocay and Company, Inc. of Napa offered a Garlic Parmesan dipping oil with capers. Several vendors were showing similar cheese and olive oil products and the table olive vendors were promoting cheese stuffed olives to please the Atkins dieters.
Private Harvest Parmesan dipper olive oil
Wine Country Kitchens offered tastes of a kettle roasted garlic olive oil. Owner John McIntosh described how they slow roast the garlic in a California Arbequina and Arbosana blend olive oil at 160 degrees F. for six hours. The slow roasting develops an intense flavor.
Pomegranate seemed to be the new "exotic" fruit flavor. Booths were handing out tastes of pomegranate drink mix, fruit smoothie mix, and cooking concentrate. LuLu's had an intense tasting pomegranate grilling glaze. Can a pomegranate olive oil be far off?
The continuing popularity of the martini is propelling olive sales. The Beefeater Gin booth was promoting their own olives. Table olive vendors were selling various martini olives and "dirty martini mix" - the brine from the olives.
B.R. Cohn was offering a California Certified Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil made from Mission and Manzanillo varieties grown in volcanic soil outside Sacramento. Owner Sharon Cohn explained that their winery's 130 year old Picholine trees produced only enough Estate extra virgin olive oil to sell through the store on their winery premises.
Sharon Cohn shows BR Cohn olive oil at NASFT show
DaVero's economical but award winning Kitchen Blend is a mix of their estate olive oil with other less costly California extra virgin oils.
The Arbequina varietal was named on several vendor's labels. Bulk producer California Olive Ranch's large holdings are mostly Arbequina and their excellent and inexpensive oil is finding its way into many products. Head of Marketing Alan Greene shared space at the California Olive Oil Council booth with other members. He said that interest in the ranch's products have been high and that their scarcer Arbosana oil has nearly sold out. The company's 500 acres of olives go from tree to oil in less than 4 hours thanks to mechanized picking and a modern Pieralisi mill on the premises. Retail prices for a 500 ml or 17-oz bottle range from $9.95 to $12.95
Also in the COOC booth, Ryan MacDonnell of Round Pond has one of only two operating mills in Napa valley, a recently installed Pieralisi system with a stone crusher. The family owned company produces a premium Italian varietal oil which won a gold medal last year at the Los Angeles county fair, as well as a Spanish varietal, a blood orange and a Meyer Lemon olive oil.
Another COOC booth exhibitor, Chris Banthein of Le Colline di Santa Cruz related that their Frantoio, Leccino, Ascolano and Pendolino trees suffered from harsh weather at bloom time, reducing the fruit set which led to larger fruit that ripened early enough for a November 15 2003 harvest. She and partner Bruce Golino hope that the intensely fruity oil will lead to a repeat of last year's gold medal at the LA county fair.
Pacific Culinaria's Lemon Pepper, Roasted garlic and Tuscan herb olive oils were made from an interesting multinational blend of Spanish, Italian and California olive oils.
Napa Valley Naturals had a compelling product offer. A $1.50 donation for each bottle of Organic Reserve Cuvée Olive Oil sold has been earmarked for the Komen Foundation to help fight breast cancer.
Wackiest new olive oil packaging had to go to Sassafras. Their dipping oils were packed in bright colored triangle shaped bottles with primary color stoppers.
Sassafras olive oil dippers in bright colors
The Fancy Food Show staff have done an excellent job of educating the public about olive oil. A special section of the convention center was set aside for Focused Tastings®. This special tasting area offered Fancy Food show attendees a chance to compare products in several hot categories: specialty oils, dried fruit, nuts and bottled water.
Focused Tastings - 94 oils to taste
The Focused Olive Oil Tasting section was made up of ninety four oils, most of which were olive oils although there were some unusual seed and nut oils; everything from pumpkin seed to macadamia nut and avocado oil. Fully two thirds of the olive oils were flavored with fruit, garlic or herbs in varying combinations and came from Spain, Sicily, Australia, France, Morocco, and just about every other olive bearing country.
Another special section of the show was reserved for Taste link, an audio guided tasting. For the San Francisco show the subject was olive oil. The audio guide took tasters through 12 specially chosen oils from around the world designed to demonstrate key qualities which the experts look for in a good oil. Peggy Knickerbocker gave the introduction on the audiotape and B.R. Cohn represented the California oils.
A 12 minute video "Olive Oil: A timeless Classic for Today's Consumer" was playing at a kiosk in the education area and is available for purchase from the NASFT education Department for $50.
The NASFT Fancy Food show is definitely the place to go to taste hundreds of olive oils from around the world, and for dessert, such delicacies as vegetarian caviar or 10 lbs of marzipan in the shape of a pig.