When I asked Curtis M. Cord, executive editor of the Olive Oil Times, about smoked olive oil, he didn’t mince words. “It doesn’t really appeal to me, to tell you the truth,” he said. “Most foodies aren’t crazy about flavored olive oils.”
That includes me. You want thyme, garlic or lemon in your dish? Add it directly. Don’t debase a nice olive oil with it. As the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, I grew up around the good stuff; I’ve seen it produced in Tuscany, and my office is decorated with drained bottles of particular favorites. None of them are flavored.
Still, when I first came across smoked olive oil over the holidays, I was intrigued, for one reason: Given my barbecue obsession, smoke beguiles me as much as olive oil does. Smoke and olive oil might not be as natural a pairing as, say, peanut butter and jelly (or perhaps the Kardashians and the debasement of American civilization), but there was only one way to find out whether the combination works. I bought a bottle.
The California company that makes it, the Smoked Olive, is a dream come true — literally — of Al Hartman, a longtime backyard pitman in Sonoma who designs and builds his own grills. “One morning he woke up, looked at me, said he had a dream, and said to me, ‘What about smoked olive oil?’” said his wife, Brenda Chatelain. “And I thought, ‘That sounds horrible.’ But I didn’t want to crush his dreams, so I said, ‘I’m not feeling it, but okay.’ ”
Hartman, 63, tinkered for three years. In 2008, he hit upon a method for gently smoking the oil with a combination of woods without exposing it to heat, light or air, any one of which can degrade olive oil. The couple took the smoked oil to a farmers market in Sonoma, where it sold out in a single day. Soon thereafter, the Smoked Olive went retail.
The Smoked Olive, which uses oil from two nearby Northern California estates, might be the best-known player in an admittedly little-known market. California, where the olive oil business is burgeoning, produces much of the country’s smoked oils. Other producers include enFuso, which uses oils from the Capay Valley, in the northern end of the state, and Temecula, which has its own orchards in the south. But I’ve also tried a hickory-and-pecan-smoked oil from a South Carolina company called Holy Smoke, which gets its oil from California, and a mesquite-smoked oil from Texas Olive Ranch, which uses olives grown on its South Texas land.
All use extra-virgin olive oil and, in their own manner, cold-smoke the liquid. Flavors vary considerably. As expected, given the strong flavor of the wood, the green-tinged, golden-hued mesquite olive oil has an aggressive, immediate smoke that went directly up my nostrils. The smoke flavor of Holy Smoke’s clear yellow oil is not as strong but is pungent nonetheless.
The Smoked Olive produces a greenish-gold oil called Napa that’s mildly smoky and a vibrant green oil called Sonoma that has a buttery, rich roundness up front and finishes with a soft, full, smoky flavor. Protective of their methods, Chatelain declined to answer my questions about the woods they use. She’d say only that they don’t use Liquid Smoke, they do use a blend of woods, and grapevines are involved. Whatever they are doing, the result is luscious.
As with any new discovery, the tendency to overuse smoked oil is ever present. I’ve drizzled it on grilled trout, added it to a mayonnaise dip with lemon and black pepper for raw vegetables, used it in a vinaigrette. One of my favorites was as a dressing on grilled mandarin oranges with Gorgonzola. The smoke complemented the fruit’s sweetness, concentrated by grilling. Plus, I liked the seasonality of the dish, and it looked great on a plate.
Another favorite was hummus. I regard the creamy chickpea dip as perfect and am loath to deform its lemony tahini character with hot peppers and whatever else they’re adding to it these days. Yet something told me smoked oil would work, and it does. The smoke doesn’t change the nature of hummus; it just makes it more seductive.
I also especially enjoy adding smoked olive oil to — what else? — olives. It gives tangy tapenade an alluring sassiness.
Am I the only one who feels this way? I wondered whether maybe I am biased — if I like the oil simply because I want to, because I’m so enamored of its two components. That’s why I called Cord, but although he had harsh words for the idea, he admitted that he hadn’t actually tasted any smoked olive oil, including my favorite.
Plenty of other people have. Since launching in 2009, the Smoked Olive products have been picked up by specialty stores nationwide, including Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table. Tyler Florence included the oil by name as an ingredient in two of his cookbooks. Health magazine named it a “pantry essential.”
I called Ah Love Oil & Vinegar, a specialty store in Arlington, to ask about sales of smoked oil. “It’s very popular,” owner Cary Kelly told me, noting that she sold out of her stock of eight cases during the holidays. “People can’t get over the taste.”
Just because it’s popular, of course, doesn’t mean it’s good. Other flavored olive oils sell plenty well, too. So I wanted to try one more test. On my New Year’s Eve table, I set a bowl of the Smoked Olive’s Sonoma brand for dipping crusty Italian bread during a multi-course Italian meal. I didn’t tell my guests that it was smoked. When passed around, the oil was met with spontaneous outbursts of delight.
Hmm, I thought. Maybe oil and smoke is a natural pairing, after all.
Shahin will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.
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