Olive Oil Season in California Wine Country

When tasting newly pressed oil, he advises: "This is a condiment, so don't go for pleasure. Rather, look for analysis. From new oil you want bitterness: the taste of green leaves, freshly cut grass and artichokes. There should be a peppery burst in the back of your throat. As it ages, it becomes more mellow."

Not all olive oils in Northern California come from Italy or Spain. At the Sonoma vineyard and winery B. R. Cohn (15000 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen, Calif., 95442) lore has it that in the 1870's, a French peddler planted their Picholine trees, which are olives thought to be native to France.

Following their grape harvest, when the olives are 30 percent green for the peppery flavor, 30 percent turning, and 30 percent black for the high oil content, they are harvested and then taken to nearby Olive Press to be made into specialty oils that range from extra-virgin olive oil to Meyer lemon oil. These are sold in their gift store along with other specialty foods like vinegars.

Tom Montgomery, winemaker at B. R. Cohn, suggests pairing dishes that include newly pressed olive oils with Sauvignon Blanc so the crispness of the wine and the sharpness of the oil are in harmony, or align with what he calls the "intuitive palate." B. R. Cohn offers vineyard and olive orchard tours and tastings by appointment and they have free classes on brining olives coming up on Jan. 25 and March 1.

To really immerse yourself, the Sonoma Valley Olive Festival takes place in December, January and February. For this event, vineyards, restaurants and the Olive Press host olive oil cooking classes, martini parties, olive brining events, and wine and oil tastings. Visit the festival's Web site for more information.

Recipes for the Season

November is also the beginning of wild mushroom season in Northern California. Paul Canales, executive chef at Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, pairs olio nuovo with fresh porcini mushrooms.

Shaved Salad of Fresh Porcini Mushrooms and Fall Vegetables with, Regina olio nuovo, Parmigiano reggiano, and Aged aceto balsamico

Yield: 4 servings
3 ea. fennel bulbs, trimmed of any discolored areas
1/2 ea. lemon
2 oz. Regina extra-virgin olive oil, freshly pressed (olio nuovo) To taste - salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ea. fresh Porcini Mushrooms, small #1, approximately golf ball sized -- or 2 ea. worm free #2 fresh porcini, no larger than the size of your hand and with firm gills
For shaving - Parmigiano reggiano
4 tbsp. Aceto balsamico, aged at least 12 years

Using a knife, thinly slice the fennel bulbs at about 1/8" thick, using the root end as a handle. As you get to the root, angle the bulb slightly to one side and continue slicing until you reach the root again. Finish shaving on the opposite side, then discard the root.

To prepare the porcini, simply wipe each clean with a damp cloth. Do not submerge in water or scrub, as this will cause the mushrooms to become soggy.

Toss the fennel with a generous pinch of salt, a couple of twists of freshly cracked black pepper, and the olive oil. Divide the fennel among 4 chilled plates. Shave the porcini mushrooms as thinly as possible over each plate of vegetables (a truffle slicer is ideal, but a knife will also work), and shave a little Parmigiano over each with a vegetable peeler.

Finish the salads by drizzling 1 tablespoon of the balsamico over each and serve immediately.

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