The story behind the spice

Jericho Rajninger

A little kick in the back of the throat with a pungent spice that overwhelms the taste buds: this is the tell-tale sign of fresh, high quality olive oil.

“Fresh olive oil is super spicy, naturally, and that is great consumer protection,” said Claire Bradley, the current manager of Amphora Nueva. “Try the olive oil in your cabinet and if you’re not tasting spice, toss it out.”

According to Leah Bradley, Amphora Nueva’s supplier with a focus on olive oil chemistry, the pungency of fresh olive oil is created by the presence of oleocanthal, a particular phenol only found in extra virgin olive oil.

By their storefront, Amphora Nueva advertises fresh olive oil.
Advertising at their storefront, Amphora Nueva encourages many locals to try their fresh olive oil.

Offering a wide selection of artisanal olive oils, Amphora Nueva encourages customer to taste the oil before purchasing it.

Today, consumers look at food quality more closely than in prior years as new education and scientific knowledge has emerged about the health risks of mass-produced food. This is demonstrated in a recent study on local food. According to former United States Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, local food sales reached a total of 12 billion dollars in 2014, a seven billion dollar rise from 2008. And the numbers continue to grow.

A large part of local, artisanal foods is freshness. This quality in olive oil is very important to Amphora Nueva. They carry products on their shelves that are only two or three months old, comparatively fresh to the two-year-old best-by dates found in supermarkets. To achieve this, Amphora Nueva harvests their olives in the Northern and Southern hemispheres in a rotation style, utilizing the winter months to be able to harvest year-round.

But the olive oil industry has succumbed to mass production, and is now largely controlled by corporate producers. As with other industries, mass production often leads to a significant decrease in quality. For olive oil, that means the pungent spice is nonexistent.

“Our industry is filled with fraud; studies from USDA or UC Davis show anywhere between 70 percent and 85 percent of olive oils are fraudulent,” Claire Bradley stated. “They’re either rotten, adulterated with canola oil or some other type of oil, or they don’t actually meet the legal, chemical requirements for extra virgin olive oil.”

Despite the extravagant-sounding name, extra virgin olive oil is made simply using the juice of olives. What makes it special, according to the Olive Oil Times, is that it’s the only cooking oil made without industrial or chemical refinement. Or at least it should be. has been a focus for the leaders at Amphora Nueva. Their company is dissatisfied with the leniency of existing regulations for extra virgin olive oil production set by the USDA and California legislation.

Free Fatty Acid [FFA] content is one of many chemical regulations for extra virgin olive oil. The FFA percentage reveals the quality of the olives prior to harvest: the higher the FFA content, the poorer the olives.

“To be extra virgin in the U.S., 0.8% [FFA] is allowed, which is horrible. That comes from rotten olives,” Claire Bradley said.

Amphora Nueva is not the only organization that believes the current national extra virgin standards need to be changed. The California Department of Food and Agriculture has set their own standard to be 0.5% FFA or lower. 

Amphora Nueva works with their growers to produce extra virgin olive oil that contains 0.1% FFA or below. This means that the Amphora Nueva olives are under the Ultra Premium Standard: their olives are healthy, ripe and in pristine condition.

Amphora Nueva’s strict chemical standards are also manifested in other oils regulations. The presence of polyphenols, a type of antioxidant, is a category which Amphora Nueva tests their oils for but it is not mandated by federal or state law.
According to Leah Bradley, polyphenolic content cannot be directly correlated to quality of olive oil. More polyphenols does not necessarily constitute a higher quality product. However, they do provide an asset to the oil which Amphora Nueva values.

“[High polyphenol oils] offer more stability,” said Leah Bradley. “They are better to cook with because the antioxidants sacrifice themselves in place of the oil oxidizing as it’s heated.”

Refuting the common stereotype, Amphora Nueva oils can be used in cooking because of their high polyphenol content.
Debunking the common misconception, Amphora Nueva oils can be used in cooking because of their high polyphenol content.

A popular misconception is that olive oil is not suited for cooking. And that is largely true for mass-produced oils which aren’t under careful polyphenolic inspection.

Another component of freshness which Amphora Nueva and other local, artisanal companies champion is a method of infusion called agrumato fusion. Mass producing companies often advertise seemingly fresh products, but actually use extracts to add flavor to their olive oils. They are cheaper and easier to manage than fresh ingredients.

Agrumato fusion, however, draws flavor directly from the fresh fruit or produce to give olive oils a wide range of authentic flavors.

“We’re talking about having to get oranges and press them in. It’s a whole different expense, but it makes the flavor really true,” stated Claire Bradley.

Duilio Valenti is an Italian chef of 40 years who cooks as the head chef at Valenti and Co., a three year old restaurant in San Anselmo. Valenti switched from an Italian olive oil to Amphora Nueva for their innovative and genuine taste.

“The Gremolata is a blend of lemon, garlic and parsley that we use for osso buco and for my veal chop and this is one of my favorites,” Valenti said. “It’s a faint taste but it’s there. It’s pretty amazing that they came up with a flavor like that.”