Is Texas olive oil as good as Italian olive oil? While an Italian may shudder at the question, it’s a more valid musing than you might think.
The production of American olive oil is on the rise, but it’s still a drop in the global bucket (or, should we say, bottle). According to the American Olive Oil Producers Association, the United States consumes 90 million gallons of olive oil annually, making us the largest olive oil market outside of Europe. Yet, we only produce approximately 5% of all of the olive oil consumed in this country each year.
The tide may be turning, as it did with American wine not so long ago. In the 1970s, the United States produced only a small fraction of the world’s wine. Today, with California in the lead, the U.S. is the world’s fourth-largest wine producer.
Today, California is also in the lead in terms of U.S. olive oil production, but more states are following suit. Olive oil is now being produced in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Oregon, Hawaii, and, yes, Texas. As it turns out, the olive oil coming out of Texas is pretty special.
Is it as good as Italian olive oil? First, let’s take a look at the Italian olive oil landscape.
First, What Makes Italian Olive Oil So Special?
Where Texas olive oil is the new kid on the block, Italian olive oil is the old sage. Behind Spain, Italy is the world’s second-largest producer of world-class extra virgin olive oil. While other countries win olive oil industry awards and accolades these days, Italian high quality olive oils consistently perform well in competition, epitomizing what good olive oil should be.
Here are a few reasons why:
- Perhaps it has to do with practice. Italy has been cultivating olive trees since the ancient times. During the days of the ancient Romans, poets praised the quality of Italian olive oil. Today, their oils still garner praise. Jenkins and Erin Shambura, the respective owner and chef at acclaimed restaurant Fausto in Brooklyn, told New York Magazine that EVOO from Tuscany “is the best oil in the world.”
- The quality of the olive groves is something special. While many olive oil farms around the world are large and more industrialized, Italy is home to some lovely small olive oil groves. Because of the natural geography of the country, olive trees often grow in rugged terrain, meaning harvesting is difficult, expensive, and small-batch.
- Italy has a lot of olives. In all, the country is home to 350 varieties (even more if you count clones from different regions). Italy’s olive oil makers decide whether to combine the olive varieties into a complex blend or to bottle the oil as a monovarietal or monocultivar oil.
- While these make up a small percentage of overall olive oil production, Italy is also home to a range of DOP- and IGP-protected olive oils. DOP status, which translates to Protected Designation of Origin in English, is given to products for which every step of the process is done in a specific region. With IGP products, which translates to Protected Geographical Indication, at least one part of the process is carried out in the region named. Here are some examples:
- Planeta Val Di Mazara Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a DOP Val di Mazara olive oil.
- It’s not only olive oils that get this designation. Compagnia Del Montale Aceto Balsamic Vinegar Vigna Bianca IGP is an IGP from Modena.
A Grain of Salt
If an olive oil is Italian, that doesn’t necessarily mean its quality is high. Over the past few years, the European olive oil market has been hit by a few scandals. Some Italian producers have been caught adding cheaper oils to extra virgin olive oil, such as soy and sunflower oil. What’s more, according to the New York Times, olives do not need to be grown in Italy for the oil to be labeled “made in Italy.” It just needs to be bottled there.
That doesn’t mean you should avoid Italian olive oil. Rather, it means consumers need to be mindful of where they purchase their Italian EVOO. For example, OliveOil.com only sells oils from high-quality, hand-selected producers.
The Birth of Texas Olive Oil
While the story of Texas olive oil is a few millenia shorter, it’s still an interesting one.
It all begins with Jim Henry, a businessman from Dallas. After traveling to Spain for a few business trips in the 1980s, he came to appreciate excellent olive oil. When he came back to Texas, he wanted to try his hand at making olive oil, so he decided to plant some olive trees.
Henry’s passion for farming wasn’t out of the blue. When he was in elementary school in Nevada, he was required to take a career aptitude test, and that test suggested that he should become a farmer.
Of course, farming requires knowledge as well as passion. He traveled around the Mediterranean, learning how to cultivate different varieties of olive trees in Spain, Greece, and Italy. He first purchased land near Marble Falls and Devine, in Texas hill country, but a freeze one winter killed his trees.
The next year, the Texas Department of Agriculture called to tell him that there were some olive trees growing in the backyard of the Asher and Mary Isabelle Richardson House, a historic landmark built in 1911. The home is in Asherton, near Carrizo Springs, the site of his future ranch. Jim got in his car and soon discovered that, yes, it was true. Better yet, the trees had born fruit.
Booned by this finding, Henry looked for an American farmer who had succeeded in producing olive oil. He eventually met Vito DeLeonardis, an Italian-American olive grower in Visalia, California, who became his mentor. In 2003, Henry planted 66 acres of trees. In 2007, he had his first yield of 5,000 gallons.
Marketing Texas Olive Oil
Producing the olive oil was one thing – the next was selling it. It was quite the job to convince Texans that home-grown olive oil and a Southwest olive mill could be just as good as Italian olive oil.
“We were shocked at how good the olive oil tasted; it was very exciting,” Henry told Men’s Journal in 2015. And yet, they couldn’t sell it. To make some headway, Henry sent out some well-informed ambassadors to farmers markets. Slowly, he began to turn the tide.
Jimmy’s Food Store, set in Dallas, is known to stock some of the best Italian foods in the area. Even so, they stock Henry’s olive oil on their shelves. As owner Mike DiCarlo told Men’s Journal, the olive oil is “as good as any Italian oil or any other oil from Europe. We’ve been selling it for ten years. You can taste the quality is pure.”
Texas Olive Ranch Today
Today, Henry produces the largest crop of EVOO in the Southern US – 25,000 gallons annually, with new varietals including balsamic vinegar, garlic infused olive oil, and a jalapeno-infused olive oil. To this day, it’s still a family farm olive oil company operated by Jim and his two sons, Josh and Matt. They’ve also expanded to Victoria, Texas, where the 380 acres will soon be home to an olive orchard of 300,000 more trees.
As Henry told Men’s Journal, “The Victoria area is really the sweet spot. Scientists from the Texas Agriculture Life tested soil from across the state the past six years and said this spot is the ideal climate. There’s no spike in temperature during the spring because of the gulf.”
Unfortunately, 2017’s Hurricane Harvey blew off the leaves so the first year’s harvest yielded no fruit. But big things are expected from this land.
The Other Producers in Texas
Inspired by the success of Henry’s olive oil ranch, there are now dozens of producers in Texas, making the state the second-largest producer of olive oil in the United States, behind California. Many of the Texas producers sell their wares at local farmer’s markets, but few have branched out into other states or countries. That may be changing.
Just this year, a Texas-made olive oil won a Gold and a Silver Award at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.
So, is Texas Olive Oil as Good as Italian?
That depends on what you’re buying. Yes, there has been a history of corruption in the Italian olive oil market, so it’s important to be mindful of what you purchase. However, high-quality DOP or IGP olive oils – particularly the award-winning bottles – are the stuff of legends.
Texas olive oil, on the other hand, is nothing to be sniffed at.
As reported in Texas Monthly, “Texas olive oil, by contrast, is of the highest quality: it’s not only olive oil through and through, it regularly registers acid levels – a key indicator of quality – that are considerably lower than the European standard for extra-virgin olive oil.”
Ultimately, it comes down to preference. If you’re looking to impress your guests with something off-the-beaten-path, it might be worth giving Texas olive oil a chance. As they say, everything’s bigger in Texas. Could it be better, too?