When I was growing up in post-war Britain, one could buy olive oil only in tiny bottles from pharmacies.
It was added warm to cotton balls and plugged into tender ears to soothe a throbbing earache. Rich women, it was murmured, used it on their skin, which suggested it must have been without that rounded grassy smell we now find so enticing.
These days, you can scarcely move about a supermarket or specialty-store aisle without encountering olive oil -- and so much the better. No one needs telling that olive oil is healthier than butter or other fats. Even people who say they couldn't care less about food and wine can be seduced by the simplicity of dipping hunks of country-style Italian bread into a dark pool of scented oil.
Its only drawback is because it is predominantly imported, it's so expensive.
According to the California Olive Oil Council, Americans consume around 65 million gallons of olive oil annually -- eight times more than 20 years ago -- but that figure may be about to rocket even higher, while price should go down.
California farmers are preparing to turn the Golden State into an olive producer to rival the Mediterranean groves. This could reverse the current position, where only 1 percent of all olive oil consumed is of U.S. origin.
This year, farmers will plant around 2,000 acres of olive trees, an increase of land given over to the crop of roughly 30 percent.
Paul Vossen, an olive specialist at the University of California Extension in Sonoma, told the Los Angeles Times recently that as many acres will be added annually until at least 2009, when California's olive-oil production could equal that of France.
Whereas olives in Europe are harvested by hand from trees widely spaced in orchards, California will benefit from high-density plantings. On one California olive farm, 675 trees are growing in an area that in Europe would support only 120.
California also will profit from mechanized picking, which turns a fresh harvest from the tree into oil in just 90 minutes, and from new investments in olive mills.
The European Union, on the other hand, is considering phasing out subsidies for the olive-oil industry, and recent weather has dramatically reduced the olive harvest in Italy and Spain.
Some European producers have taken advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition of what constitutes extra-virgin olive oil, and have sneaked lower grades into the U.S. market under that label.
Olive oil is graded according to the degree of acidity it contains. Top of the range is called cold-pressed extra virgin, the chemical-free first pressing, which contains 1 percent acid. Virgin olive oil is a first-pressing with up to 3 percent acidity.
The fino grade blends extra virgin and virgin oils, while pure olive oil adds extra virgin or virgin to refined oil. This comes from processing virgin olive oil with an acidity level higher than 3.3 percent -- and very likely poor flavor and smell.
Light olive oil is an almost flavorless and highly filtered grade, used mainly for baking and cooking. Its natural mono-unsaturated fat make it healthier than dairy or lard products. Cooking with olive oil means using up to 25 percent less fat.
It is anticipated that the USDA will revise its olive-oil standard, which will make top-grade California oil competitively priced with top-grade European imports.
Not every aspect of the domestic olive industry is in such good shape, however. According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, the Olive Growers Council in Visalia has reported that farmers are "struggling badly" to find enough workers to help harvest their crop. As a result, perhaps one-quarter of this year's olives may have to be abandoned. Roll on, general mechanization.
Fettunta is a simple cold weather snack from Tuscany, a showcase for good olive oil and delicious eaten with soup.
--Toast a slice of old country bread (it tastes best over an open wood fire), rub it thoroughly with an unpeeled clove of garlic cut in two.
--Drizzle with excellent extra virgin olive oil and season with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper.
To make an olive paste topping for plain toasted bread. Add to a blender:
--1/2 cup pitted green olives,
--5 tablespoons capers,
--2 anchovy fillets,
--3 cloves peeled garlic, and
--1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.
Blitz until smooth.
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