There have been several reports in the last month on the health benefits of olive oil, and how those benefits are lost on U.S. consumers due to the consumption of poor quality oil. Americans either take labels such as "pure" to mean highest quality when in reality "extra-virgin" is the primo designation, or the oil available has gone bad after a long period of transit across the Atlantic.
These reports generally end by suggesting that American consumers purchase extra-virgin olive oil from California for a fresh alternative to Mediterranean imports. A wise choice for most Americans, but we Houstonians are blessed with the ability to take that suggestion a step further and purchase olive oil produced in our own Lone Star State.
Using mechanical means of extraction without the aid of chemicals or solvents, extra-virgin oil is to olives what fresh-squeezed orange juice is to oranges. The freshness and purity allows for the distinct flavors of the olive variety and the terroir—or the taste of the growing region—to come through in the oil.
Professional tasters describe extra virgin olive oil as having fruity and grassy notes, as well as a causing a distinctive tingling sensation in the back of the throat; a good oil supposedly causes one to give a slight cough. Other classifications of olive oil such as "virgin" have a less refined taste or, in the case of pure olive oil, are the product of chemical filtration. The health benefits of regular olive oil consumption—which include lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and fighting inflammation—are as susceptible to aging as the taste. After an extended period of time and without proper storage, the oil will both lose its beneficial qualities and go rancid.
Texas is home to five olive oil producers, whose products can be found throughout Houston stores. Texas Hill Country Olive Oil in particular is in attendance at just about every farmers market in Houston. I paid them a visit this past Saturday at Urban Harvest's Eastside Farmer's Market at 3000 Richmond.
Texas Hill Country Olive Oil, which grows a variety of Spanish and Italian olives in Dripping Springs, informed me that this year's olive harvest was about to start in the late fall. They gave me descriptions of their different olive oils, some deliciously infused with peppers and spices, all of which are exclusively extra virgin. When given a taste of their simple extra virgin Terra Verde, I got that mythical burning in my throat and coughed like I had the beginnings of a cold. I was told I wasn't the first customer that had come explicitly looking for this experience.
With around 300 acres of olive groves in production between the five groups producing olive oil in Texas, there is more than enough available for discerning Houstonians. The industry is nascent, but many of the orchards have plans to expand, and will continue to do so with the support of local olive oil fans. As the olive groves develop, perhaps we'll even come to recognize and taste the terroir of Texas growing regions.
As the call to "go local" begins to sound like a thoughtless obsession, it can be easy to forget the solid reasoning behind choosing products made in our region. Buying extra-virgin olive oil from Texas olive orchards is a cut and dried example of a locally produced product being good for your health, better for our state's economy, and plain better for your taste buds. So when they say we should be buying from California, just remember that we've got the oil, Houston—you were just thinking of the wrong type.