Since opening my business in 2015, I have gained a wealth of knowledge in the field of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. So it felt pretty great to be asked to share this expertise with the world when I was asked to be on the Conejo Valley Advice Givers podcast. You can listen on our website, on their website (and read the article), or on iTunes ! Or, if you prefer reading, here it is!
(from Conejo Valley Advice Givers Podcast 118, August 2018, paraphrased by Margot Lederer)
Welcome to the Conejo Valley Advice Givers Podcast, featuring Selena O’Connor, owner of Olive Alchemy Calabasas, with Jay and Michelle Leiberman.
Jay:Hello everybody and welcome to another episode of the Conejo Valley Advice Givers Podcast. I'm here with my co-host Michelle.
Jay:It's the afternoon it's hot as hell and I'm hungry so we're going to talk about olive oil and balsamic vinegar -- and cooking for that matter. So, today we are fortunate enough, Christiana our podcast producer talked to me about these guys at Olive Alchemy a bit ago. She was interested in you guys some time ago before she even, I think, talked to you. And we cook a lot in the house and we understand olive oil a little bit, or at least understand what it should be if it's good, so I was really stoked to have you guys on. So, on the line we have Selena O'Connor. Hi Selena.
Jay:Selena and her mother, Margot, it's a family business, you guys opened up your Calabasas store and tasting room back a couple years ago almost?
Selena:Yeah, we’ve been open for two years now.
Jay:That's great. And so it's a really cool shop. I haven’t stopped in, but I've driven by it. It's right by the Calabasas Commons if I'm right, right after the little side street there.
Selena:Yes, we are next to the US Post Office across the street from The Commons.
Jay:And you guys [have] olive oil, balsamic vinegar and all kinds of other accessories and things like that which I've seen. Would you kind of take us back just a couple minutes on how you guys got started and why olive oil and all that?
Selena:We have a close relationship with a family who has had their business for one hundred years now. They have the ability to travel to lots of countries, finding family farms and choosing olive oils and that they are able to bring to the US.
Jay:By the way, your supplier, are they really in business for one hundred years?
Selena:Yes, since the early 1900s they’ve had their company! It started out as a traditional Italian foods import business and now focuses specifically on olive oil and balsamic vinegar. They're very professional and know everything there is to know about olive oil. They are located in the Sf Bay Area where I grew up, and I grew up using their products- all the different olive oils. As a family we cooked with fresh, quality food products and we value knowing where all of the olive oil was actually coming from and when it was harvested. My family never bought olive oil off the grocery shelves, we always used our supplier’s products. So, I grew up with that.
Selena:My Mom and I had the idea to open a store following seven years of experience that I had working in the food service industry. So, now, we have a retail store and tasting room in Calabasas and I'm sharing that [value] with all the people in [the community] who don't know about the quality of the oil and they didn't have access to that before.
Jay:Before we proceed, here is a key question: Are olives a fruit or a vegetable?
Selena:Olives are fruit. Just like a fresh squeezed fruit juice, you want to consume it (the juice) as soon as possible to get all the nutrients out of it.
Jay:Is your mom still up in the Bay Area?
Selena:She is, so I'm running the whole store with one other salesperson, and my mom is handling the back end. I interact with our customers every day; I choose all of the olive oils that we carry myself, handle social media and marketing, and store operations.
Jay:Got it. And your mom's up there. [So] on a more constant basis she's dealing with the distributor and the pressing and all that kind of like she see all of that.
Selena:Yeah, ...kind of more the business side of things. She has a lot of knowledge and experience in the food industry. She helps me select some other food items that we carry, sourced from the Bay Area as well as L.A.
Jay:Got it. And I think it's cool, by the way, they call olive oil and balsamic places tasting rooms because it's like wine tasting.
Selena: Yes, it's like a taproom. So, you think of beer on tap, that's exactly how my store is. The walls are displayed with what we call Fustis- which are stainless steel tanks that don't allow any light or oxygen to get in. The customer can taste everything and we fill the bottles fresh.
Michelle:And you actually taste it with bread or do you just taste it?
Selena:We encourage people to taste it by itself, which most people would never think of doing with olive oil they have at home, but I always have bread as well. So, you can dip the bread in it but you really get the flavor much more accurately if you're not using the bread.
Jay:I used to know somebody that was super into olive oil and he said the proper way to taste olive oil is to actually slurp it-- there's like a swirling to it or something, right?
Selena:Yes. So that’s what we recommend you do to taste the full flavor, and to taste the nutritional qualities. You heat oil when you're cooking with it, but you don't want to store it with any heat. To taste it you warm up the tasting cup in the palm of your hand so that it releases the aroma and you can smell the different flavors that come out of each different variety of oil. So, some will smell more “grassy”, some will smell more “peppery”, and some are “fruity”. You warm it up and smell it first, then you sip it and take in some air afterwards. Sometimes it causes a little cough if it's really peppery, meaning there are high antioxidant qualities (biophenals). some are more smooth and mellow. So, yes- there's a little art to tasting it.
Michelle:And do you want to buy a different olive oil for different purposes or it does one olive oil cover whatever cooking you're doing?
Jay:Like cooking, dipping bread and all that stuff.
Selena:Olive Alchemy has oils ranging from mild to more robust, and that's all based on the chemistry of the oil. The chemistry is tested, and verified, in a lab after the olives are actually crushed and the oil is made. In regard to the chemistry, there is the presence of polyphenols and oleic acids, and there are free fatty acids; that's what you want to look at when you're choosing one for cooking. So, you want an oil that has low free fatty acids because that stands up better in oxidation so, it can handle higher smoke points. Good quality oils tend to be more robust in flavor and have higher polyphenols, which indicate the antioxidant level – those are the healthiest and happen to be better for cooking with, as they will retain higher levels of polyphenols and flavor, even after cooking. But all of the oils that I carry can handle just medium to high heat for stir-frying or scrambling eggs, but some of the ones (with higher polyphenols) can be used for deep frying.
Michelle:And you could dip bread in them as well?
Selena:Yes, they are most delicious raw poured over foods, in salads and for dipping with bread. Some of the robust and healthiest oils have a much stronger taste, which some people might not like. A lot of our customers come in and only want the really strong flavored oils because they're consuming it more for the health benefits. A lot of people start out only wanting the more mild ones; as they come in more often and get used to the taste, they're moving to the more robust ones.
Michelle:And so the more robust ones actually do have more (or stronger) health benefits?
Selena:Yes. They have more health benefits. The antioxidants inevitably degrade in the cooking process, so if you're starting with one that has higher antioxidants, you're still maintaining a lot of those health benefits when you cook with it.
Michelle:Can you store olive oil?
Selena:You want to consume it as fresh as possible so we recommend using your newly-purchased oil within six months to a year if it's stored properly, like storing it in your dark pantry or out of the sunlight. You definitely don't want to keep it in the fridge and you don't want it to be next to your stove where it’s heating up.
Michelle:And I see that a lot in people's kitchens, so they have that little tray with all the oils next to it; so it needs like a cool dry place?
Selena:Yes. Heat and light are the enemy for olive oil. Olive Alchemy’s oils are stored in Italian-made, imported stainless steel tanks because they're not getting any light or air going into it. Once we fill them into the bottle for the consumer, we recommend storing for no more than one year. I would never sell olive oil in a clear bottle- you don't want it to get any light into it. It's ok to store in a small clear bottle that you're just going to use that week and put it on your table when you have guests over,
Michelle:What do you sell it in?
Selena:We sell it in dark colored glass bottles in various sizes.
Jay:I've had a lot of also infused olive oils like the garlic olive oil, I bought one recently. Do they do that when they're actually pressing the olive oil or do they mix it afterwards?
Selena:Some of the oils are called “fused”(the Italian term is “agrumato”). For example, our Blood Orange olive oil is fused-using whole local blood oranges and crushing it with the olives to produce an oil. All the fused oils that Olive Alchemy has are actually made in our supplier’s certified-organic mill in Tunisia. Fused oils have a bit stronger taste and they're very delicious. The infused oils are flavored in our supplier’s facility in Oakland (California) and made using fresh-harvest, extra virgin oil – they are infusing the essence into it. The rosemary is afusedoil which is delicious and then we have a couple of spicy chili ones that are all fused.
Michelle:Well, that's up your alley Jay…spicy!
Jay:Yeah, I know. Well, the garlic one, we just went through that in a minute. You cook with it and we put like a tablespoon in the pan, the whole pasta dish changes you know….It's really cool.
Selena:With our Garlic Olive Oil you can just use it as a regular cooking oil and you don't have to chop up garlic in whatever you're making. So, it really makes the process easier for those who don't like to cook or for those who do.
Michelle:Right here, that is so true. There's nothing worse than chopping garlic and then if you buy that jar of it, but it's just not as good.
Selena:And back to the olives are fruit, there's a whole science of seasonality. During the winter months I get different oils than I do in the summer months, depending on the different area of the world and its harvest season.
Michelle:Do they have a season that they're better?
Selena:Yes, in the summer we offer Southern Hemisphere oils, and in the winter/spring we offer Northern Hemisphere oils. I just got some from Chile, I'll be getting some from Australia in a couple weeks and those were just pressed. In the winter time we get a lot from Italy, Spain, Greece, California and Tunisia. With the infused oils, the base oil is always changing depending on the season.
Jay:How long does it take for (your suppliers) to actually crush it and get it to you?
Selena : To meet our “Ultra-Premium” standard the olives have to be crushed within four hours of harvest [that’s fast] to have a really good quality, extra virgin oil and then we get them about two months after.
Jay:Good. Now, let's talk about how it's actually made because all I'm imagining is…. I don't know if you remember the show Selena, or if you’ve seen reruns of it; it's the ‘I Love Lucy’ episode where she's squishing the wine with her feet. [Olive pressing] reminds me of that, I don't know why, but how is it actually made? If you could talk about how it's made and, in conjunction with that, what does “extra virgin” means versus “virgin”, and what cold-pressed means and all these kind of terms that we hear.
Selena:They harvest the olives or actually pick them off the tree and there's a whole art to that which I couldn't tell you. A producer would really know the best timing to pick the olives. You never want to pick them off the ground when they're overripe and black, which a lot of big companies do because it produces more oil, not necessarily good quality oil. So, they pick them green off the tree and then they actually crush them with the pit in it to maintain a lot of the flavor.
Jay:Interesting, I didn’t know that.
Selena:This is our standard- the producers don't filter them at all. Some companies filter [the oil] to take out a lot of the sediment, but they're really just pressing them to produce bulk oil. The best olive oil is fresh-squeezed juice. It's just the juice being pressed out of the olive.
Jay:But how does it come out when they press the whole thing down with the seed, I mean-- there is oil right in the fruit itself?
Selena:Yes. The producers want to get olives that are hard and crunchy because that's going to be the best quality oil with the highest chemistry. They [crush] within four hours of harvest and then [the oil] gets sent to a lab to test the chemistry before our supplier accepts it. The chemistry of the oil is really what tells you if it's true extra virgin. There's a whole standards list with numbers that it has to meet to become extra virgin.
Selena:Extra virgin olive oil hasn't been filtered, if it is, it loses a lot of its chemistry and loses a lot of the antioxidants the older it is, with lower chemistry values.
Jay:And what kind of oil do you carry? Mainly extra virgin in your taste room?
Selena:Yes, we will only carry the highest quality extra virgin olive oils. I post the chemistry on each fusti with the harvest date on every single oil. The oil’s chemistry is not going to be the same today as last year’s batch due to varying climate and control conditions implemented by the grower.
Jay:That's cool. So, like if there's something that I buy at your shop three months ago and I decided to put it into a really kind of dark cool pantry for like a year, it'll taste different a year later?
Selena:Yes. It’ll taste slightly different.
Selena:I have to taste my oils constantly, every week to make sure they are fresh. Sometimes they do taste a lot different. That’s why we change all our extra virgins every season.
Jay:Do you like olive oil or are you kind of like, tired of it?
Selena:You can never have too much - it's such a healthy fat- I put it on everything.
Michelle:And what does “cold-pressed” mean?
Selena:The term “cold-pressed” means not heating it up when pressing it, which artificially creates more oil but of a lesser quality.
Michelle:Is the heating up a normal part of it?
Selena:No. Heating up is bad. A lot of mass-market less credible brands heat it up because it produces more oil.
Jay:I see, so it's all about quality versus quantity.
Selena:It’s all about the quality.
Michelle:So, it's sort of like extra virgin cold-pressed is pretty much the best you can do.
Jay:I mean we cook with it all-- I mean that's all I cook with because it doesn't burn you know, at least the kind that we have. That's how I like it and it's mellow, it doesn't have to be mellow, it can be something different versus like just vegetable oil or butter which always kind of tastes the same.
Selena:Yeah, and it's a misconception when people say you can't cook with olive oil- that's completely untrue. You probably shouldn't be cooking with low quality olive oil because if you're using it to get the health benefits you're not getting any health benefits.
Jay:And actually, I read an article that said vegetable oils and even canola oil, when cooking at high temperatures - actually can become carcinogenic, versus olive oil which can take the high temperature.
Michelle:Oh, my gosh, really?
Jay:That's what I heard, I read an article long time ago about it in men's fitness.
Selena:I don't know much about [other oils] but with olive oil, you just want to be cooking with a high-quality oil.
Jay:Now, there's other benefits too that it's even good for animals. Do you guys make a product for animals?
Selena:We don't make a product for animals – they can have all the same products we can have. So, I put the extra virgin olive oil on their food when I'm making my own food.
Jay:Do you really put it on their kibble?
Selena:Yes, on top of my dog’s kibble in the morning, in the night. One of my dogs gets dry spots so I rub it on his skin. It's great for shiny coats. You can use it for horses and for cats.
Michelle:You just put it right on top like you can just rub in with your hand?
Selena:...like a massage oil.
Michelle:Oh, that's so cool.
Selena:They make all these shampoos and things with olive oil in them now, I would just use my own olive oil though because I know the quality is going to be there.
Jay:Do you just like pour a tub of olive oil over you every morning before you go to work?
Selena:Haha, actually the Olympians did bathe in olive oil.
Michelle:I was just going to say I picture she's got a bathtub full of olive oil.
Selena:No, but my pantry-- I mean literally whatever I'm cooking I just use it. If I make steamed vegetables I just drizzle it on top for flavoring. I don't use any canned or jarred marinades or anything. I just used oil and vinegar to add flavor to anything I'm making. There's a spicy green chili one that I can't live without and I put that on my eggs, I put it on everything, instead of like using a hot sauce you can just use that and it's a lot healthier.
Michelle:That’s really neat.
Jay:That’s awesome. Now, how many different kinds of olives are there out there?
Selena:A lot, there’s many varieties. So, when you see like Arbosana or picual, those are different varieties of olives. And you could have a picual from Chile or from Australia and they can taste completely different. They have some of the same characteristics, but depending on the year, whether there was more rain that season or when whomever was picking the olive might have picked it a little earlier than they did the last year can affect the taste.
Jay:That's cool and what do they do in the cheaper companies? I - say cheaper companies, maybe I should say the “mass-market” companies; do they usually kind of like “go merlot” with the whole thing like in wine? I mean do they just kind of mix everything together?
Selena:Yes. You want to really read the labels on those. They don't always say what type of olive it is.
Jay:It's just all olive oil.
Michelle:It’s whatever fell on the ground and they crush.
Selena:Read the front labels which state “Italian olive oil” and on the back it’ll say “could be from Spain, Greece, Portugal”, and so on.
Selena:I really wouldn't trust anything I was reading on those. Like I said, it should be like “fresh juice”. You wouldn't want to consume olive oil that you wouldn't want to just take a sip of. I mean, that would never appeal to me to just sip that oil straight.
Jay:Right, but the stuff you're selling it's like a wine so you’re tasting something golden.
Selena:Check the color of it, some are bright green, some are dark green, some are golden. Some of them look thicker, they have more sediment in them; they're beautiful when you look at all the colors next to each.
Michelle:I know you have a refill program. What is that about?
Selena:Yes, if you bring the bottle back we give a little discount so we just encourage people not to add more waste.
Michelle:Nice. Reuse, reduce, recycle. I love it…and you save money.
Jay:All right .Well, thanks Selena. It was really nice talking and learning about the store and everything you're doing. Anything else you want to share before we take off?
Selena:The main thing I want to share is for everyone to be aware of what you're eating and know where it's coming from.
Michelle:So important… we started eating at home and cooking a lot more and hence how we ended up with garlic infused olive oil and all these other cool things because you just don't know what other people are using and what's in your food. It's just so much harder, it takes more time but it's so much better for you when you eat at home. And then you get to discover all these cool oils and things when you do it.
Selena:Yes, most people when they start using these oils they really can't go back to any other olive oil.
Michelle:Yes, that’s true.
Selena:I love it when (customers) say they went to some fancy Italian restaurant and tasted the olive oil at the table and it was awful, compared to our products.
Jay:All right. Well, thanks so much for sharing Selena, was good to get to know you. If you guys want to learn more about Olive Alchemy, the tasting room, you can go to her shop in Calabasas at 4774 Park Granada or online at olivealchemy.net. Thanks so much, I look forward to maybe catching you in the store. By the way, they’re also on Instagram and Facebook, you can also find them there @OliveAlchemyCalabasas.
Selena:Yes. We share lots of recipes on Facebook and Instagram as well.
Michelle:Oh, that’s great.
Jay:All right. Thanks Selena. It was good to get to know you for a minute and maybe we’ll catch up….
Michelle:Thanks for the education.