You might not think this time of year could be filled with coveted first-of-the-season treats, but let us shine a light on that for you. Dungeness crab season is newly opened. Francophiles will be busy celebrating the arrival of Beaujolais nouveau. And in California, where 99 percent of the nation's olive oil is produced, growers are readying their presses for their own season opener: olio nuovo. Italian for "new oil", olio nuovo marks the beginning of the olive oil pressing season.
"Olio nuovo is meant to be a celebration of the harvest," says olive grower Albert Katz, Katz & Company. "In Italy, you would have sat outside the mill with your family and friends and cooked up a meal with the new oil. It's as fresh as you can get."
Crushed and bottled within 24-hours of picking, olio nuovo is viscous, deep green in color, clouded with sediment, and packed with intense flavor. There's no confusing it with a mellow cooking oil. This baby is all about flavor. Depending on the grower and olive varietals chosen for blending, this robust treat can carry flavors of apple, artichoke or pepper.
"It's perfect on salads, bread or over sauteed vegetables. It's even great over ice cream," says Dewey Lucero of Lucero Olive Oil.
According to Patricia Darragh of the California Olive Oil Council, good weather and an increase in mature acreage has boosted this year's production. "Last year's crop was disappointing, but we still produced 870,000 gallons of olive oil. Our conservative prediction for this season is 1.1 million gallons. That's a very big increase, and for the first time, we're surpassing the French in production."
"This year is a monster crop," says Antoinette Addison, owner of Figueroa Farms in the Santa Ynez Valley. "That means we'll get to pick and chose between olives and make olio nuovo blends that have a lot more flexibility."
Keep in mind that olio nuovo needs to be eaten quickly. Because the oil went straight from the mill to the bottle, sediment was not allowed to filter to the bottom. Consuming it within three months is best, say growers. Prices range from about $18-24 for a 375ml bottle. Just don't let it languish in the back of your cabinet for special occasion use only.
"This is not something to hide in the corner and come back to, or you'll be very disappointed," warns Katz.
Because of its perishable nature, it had only been offered by a few growers in limited quantities, but that's quickly changing. Today, a growing number of producers are taking pre-orders. Procrastinate, and by mid-December, much of that inventory will be long-gone.
"In the past, we were careful about how we sold it," says Jill Lee of McEvoy Ranch. "People didn't know what olio nuovo was. They bought the bottle and thought the cloudy consistency wasn't right, so we always sold it directly from the ranch where we could educate the customer. But now, more stores are starting to carry it, and consumers are starting to look for it."
Count us in that group. We're already planning our holiday salads around it.