September 16, 2015 at Ketchum Food Studio
Coordinators: Maurine Killough and Rita Held
Review by Penni Wisner

oils line-up

The array of oils tasted

It began with her husband’s impulse purchase: a liter bottle of avocado oil. Our Maurine Killough got curious. And had questions: How to use it? Who made it? And, since avocados cost good money, why was this large bottle of oil so inexpensive?! These questions eventually led Maurine to the Bella Vado 100% California Avocado Oil. The oil made by this family business differed significantly from what we will henceforth refer to as “the impulse oil.”

Those differences and a broader curiosity about culinary oils in general inspired the tasting held at Ketchum Food Studio in mid-September. Sure you can open bottles at home to taste, but eight at the same time? But who would you share your experience with? And then you would have to make your own dinner. Instead, about fifty of us milled around the large island that centers the Studio and dunked small bread chunks into the oils. If we followed the suggested order of tasting, we worked our way from more neutral-flavored oils through richer, roasted, and finally spicy. And made additions to our grocery lists.

First up, the GMO-free California rice bran oil made by the California Rice Oil Co. It’s a frying oil preferred by many of our top-flight restaurants. Later, we learned from our speakers that rice bran oil is extracted by solvents. But that when perfectly refined, there will be no effect on flavor. Next up was Napa Valley Naturals’ grapeseed oil. It too is neutral and light in flavor, perhaps a bit richer than the rice bran oil, and a great oil for high-heat cooking as well as for other applications where you want a neutral oil. Mayonnaise is one such, for me anyway. Third in line was Bella Vado’s California unrefined, unfiltered avocado oil, a lovely green color with a buttery, slightly nutty character. It, too, would make a delicious mayonnaise. Hmmm. How about ice cream?! With its high smoke point (480°F), it would work for sautéing and frying as well. Cid da Silva, the owner of Bella Vado told us a refined avocado oil would have an even higher smoke point more in the range of 520°F (a use for the “impulse oil”).

And then came Dr. Bronner’s unrefined, organic coconut oil. Unmistakably coconut-y! It is all the rage these days and we all wanted to know why. Unfortunately, there was not a spokesperson for the oil on hand. One of our speakers, Dr. J. Bruce German, the Director of the Foods for Health Institute at UC Davis, did not specifically address any health benefits but instead suggested that there was good evidence to support using coconut oil as one of many culinary oils in our pantries. In fact, he said that saturated fat (fats that are solid at room temperature, as is coconut oil) have a part to play in our diets. Saturated fat, said Dr. German, helps the liver move fat around the body.

It was time to move on to roasted nut and seed oils from La Tourangelle, a company that makes artisanal oils in California according to traditional methods developed by the company’s founders 150 years ago in France. All are non-GMO certified and expeller pressed. The three oils presented were all roasted—pistachio, walnut, and sesame—and great tasting. The pistachio and walnut oils just won Good Food Awards in 2015. The surprise of the night for many of us was a mustard seed oil from KL Keller Foodways of Australia with its assertive, wasabi-like clean, spicy flavor. I already bought a bottle at Rainbow (many of the other oils we tasted are already members of the household) and drizzled it over a bowl of coconut-pumpkin soup.

Once we’d tasted, we filled our plates from the generous buffet set out by La Mediterranee which included (but was not limited to!) a delicious pomegranate-roast chicken, dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), hummus, and a leafy salad with a dressing made with Bella Vado avocado oil. Dr. Bronner’s Coconut Oil shone in the fudgy chocolate dessert squares.

While we enjoyed our food and wines donated by Clos du Bois, our speakers entertained and educated us. Then we paid them back by peppering them with questions. Our moderator for the evening’s discussion was Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND. She introduced Dr. German who lost no time exploding food myths such as “saturated fat causes heart disease,” “dietary fat makes you fat,” and “heart disease is a modern disease.” In fact, 1000-year-old mummies show evidence of heart disease. The truth, according to Dr. German, is that we humans are all different and our dietary needs will be different, too. For instance, heart disease is not uniform in men and women. Women are more prone to heart disease linked to lowered HDL. All those low fat/high carbohydrate diets? These are not good for women as they tend to lower HDL and leave women at risk–especially if over-eating simple carbs. His final slide was a picture of a “daughter attachment mechanism,” a very cute dog. “Dogs,” claimed Dr. German, “have a greater effect on longevity than lipitor.”

Cid da Silva told us how he got into the avocado oil business: he thought he wanted a vineyard until he and his wife Corinne fell in love with the Southern California orchard property. Bella Vado is currently the only US-grown and produced avocado oil. The Bella Vado home ranch is organic and the da Silvas original product was their own organic oil. Their venture has become so successful, that now they buy avocadoes from neighboring ranches and produce a range of avocado oil including lemon, garlic, and jalapeño oils. Cid also told us that avocado oil has a natural SPF of 15 and how the oil soaks into skin without leaving an oily trace. So it makes sense that Bella Vado has expanded into skin care products. Their newest endeavor is to create new uses for their waste: the crushed paste that results from the oil extraction.

Matthieu Kohlmeyer, CEO of La Tourangelle in Berkeley, told us of his family’s long history in the oil business—150 years and counting in Saumur, France—and of their dedication to roasting their nut oils in particular to bring out their robust flavors. We were reminded that light and heat are the enemies of culinary oils, and true to that principle, the oils are packed in metal. The company now imports and distributes oils from artisanal producers all over the world including organic, extra-virgin coconut and olive oils. Plus they are now packaging some of their oils as sprays.

As you might be able to tell by now, we had a great time, learned a lot, and were inspired to expand our use of culinary oils. As those postcards from exotic climes say: Missed you and wished you were there!