Thursday, October 9, 2014

Maia Hirschbein

Oleologist, California Olive Ranch
Oakland, California

Maia and I have crossed paths many times over the past few years. First at a class I taught on sensory evaluation of olive oil at 18 Reasons in San Francisco and then through the University of Gastronomic Sciences and my job at the UC Davis Olive Center. When I learned she was working for California Olive Ranch educating chefs and distributors on the qualities of extra virgin olive oil, I knew she needed to be featured.

The California olive oil industry is small and new relative to the games abroad.  Many domestic players are still finding their place and territory in the expanding market. At the core of the industry is quality with the mass majority of large and small producers creating excellent extra virgin olive oil. Education is key at this point in development. With supermarket shelves still stocked with low priced imported “extra virgin olive oil” consumers make the obvious decision, opting for the economical option. Unfortunately the low price is usually an indication of poor quality and improper grading. Back in my days at UC Davis I was part of a study revealing over seventy percent of imported extra virgin olive oil on the California supermarket shelves to be improperly labeled. The more people spreading quality information the better. I see it as a trickle down effect that starts with chefs, distributors, and buyers, eventually ending up in the hands and mouths of consumers.

Maia is a California girl. Raised in San Diego her East Bay home has a coastal feel filled with staghorn ferns and Alameda flea market finds - think Big Sur meets the Temescal Alley.  She was excited to demonstrate how you can deep fry in extra virgin olive oil easily at home so she heated up a huge cast iron pan of oil and made an amazing lunch full of fresh herbs and summer vegetables from her backyard garden. Naturally the meal featured lots of California olive oil.

What is your role as an oleologist?

My primary role is conducting tasting classes promoting California olive oil. I travel and provide tastings for chefs to encourage restaurants to use more California olive oil. I also lead workshops on the history of California olive oil, its evolution, and ultimately focus on the sensory evaluation of olive oil and its application with food.

How did you find your way working in olive oil?

While studying for my masters in Italy, I worked the harvest with an olive oil producer in remote southern Tuscany. The experience of working among the trees, and tasting the freshest of fresh oils right after it was milled permanently changed me. It was so alive and bright and I am forever in pursuit of that aroma.

Do you have a mentor?

I look up to a lot of people, both chefs and thought leaders in the olive oil industry. 

Describe your design style?

Comfortable, clean, California. I tend to wear a lot of white, and in my home I also tend to choose light colors, mixed with pops of brightness. I enjoy mixing new and old, natural woods and natural fabrics. For me, sunlight is so critical that I won’t live in a house without it. I hope to create a space that invites people to relax and feel welcome.

Favorite spot in your house?

I find myself waking up and heading straight to the backyard, I love pruning and watering and seeing our plants grow. I’m so proud when they shoot out new leaves and it’s such an amazing experience to grow food for ourselves.

What do you wish the average person knew about olive oil?

That not only is it the healthiest fat option, it also takes heat and you can cook with it. There are a lot of myths out there about cooking with olive oil, and I would love more people to know that it is definitely ok to heat. Find two oils, one that is mild and buttery for cooking, and another that is more fruity and bitter for finishing. Use it up quickly because it is perishable.

Describe your cooking style?

I like to think it’s instinctual, I rarely measure or time things, and like constantly tasting whatever I’m making. I like simple ingredients, I douse everything in olive oil, and I love to be constantly learning. I’m inspired by the best of seasonal ingredients, and love adapting as the seasons change.

What is your earliest childhood food memory?

To be honest it’s eating cottage cheese and apple sauce out of a plate with little separate compartments, I liked mixing them together. So that must have been when I was 3 years old. The most lasting memory is my mother’s famous spaghetti. She would cook her sauce for hours in a big blue cast iron pan that was only used for this sauce, and it was fill the whole house with the smell all day. I
have just started to practice her recipe so I can make it for my kids one day.

What was dinner like at the family table as a kid?

My parents were adamant about us eating together every night. Sometimes I fought it and just wanted to make macaroni and cheese, but those meals together made us the family that we are—we now both like and love each other and remain involved in each other’s lives to this day. Even if it’s a simple 15 minutes all sitting around the same table, I believe those moments are what make a family a family.

- Nicole 

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