There's been an explosion of olive oil bars lately in Orange County, and I don't get it.
If you've never seen one, they tend to feature long rows of shiny silver canisters filled with bulk olive oil from different regions of the world. They also tend to be extremely expensive, and while I don't mind paying for quality, the quality isn't always evident. There are exceptions, of course--great olive oil stores do exist--but the following list of five sins is shockingly pervasive.
5. Too much focus on infused oil
Every trip into one of these stores starts with a tour from the person behind the counter. More than half the time, they do a general wave at the first set of canisters with, "This is regular oil," then head toward the back and wax poetic about the tangerine-infused oil, the Meyer lemon-infused oil, the garlic oil, etc. I can infuse oils myself; I am a relatively accomplished home cook. Yet when I demur, they look hurt. We won't even get into the so-called "balsamic" vinegars that have never been within a hundred feet of anything made of balsam fir.
4. Plastic cups
This is a general complaint, and a pretty stuck-up one besides, but it's true: you don't go to a dégustation at a winery and get served good wine in a plastic cup, yet every olive oil place I've been to--including, increasingly, in France--has these awful little plastic cups that lend a plastic taste to the oil. There are never spoons or glass or metal dishes, only plastic. Sopping mushy white bread into the oil doesn't help the matter, either.
3. Bad oil
If I'm going to pay a ridiculous amount for olive oil, I expect it to be great olive oil. Maybe it's young and grassy, like a just-pressed Arbequina; maybe it's slightly tannic like early-season California oil. One thing it should not be, however, is rancid. I can count on one hand the number of shops I've been to in Southern California where not a single oil I've tasted has been off.
2. Clueless staff
Part of the problem is staffing: while the owners may be extremely well-versed in the arts of the ancient fruit, they can't be there 100% of the time. It's annoying to visit one and start talking about olive oils I've enjoyed only to have the person behind the counter just nod and smile. Indulge me in a moment of snobbery--if you've never heard of Alziari, which is the most famous olive oil shop in the world thanks to nearly every American celebrity chef with European pretensions, maybe working in a speciality olive oil shop isn't for you.
1. Refusal to stock local products
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California used to produce a lot of disgusting olive oil, back about ten or fifteen years ago. It was acidic, harsh and the wrong color. That's changed, though, thanks to a bunch of olive farmers who persevered. Many times, there'll be one token "California" olive oil with no farm label. When I ask more specific, probing questions, I get shrugs. They'll stock oil from France, from Spain, from Greece and Italy, all things that had to be shipped in at great cost. When I ask if they have any olive oils from Baja's Valle de Guadalupe, just 120 miles away, I get incredulous looks. Let me put it this way: generic "California" olive oil is the Franzia of cooking fat.