Williams-Sonoma has offered specialty regional food to American cooks for over 50 years. When I started working at Williams-Sonoma in the early 1980s there were only 17 stores open, but we imported beautiful olive oil from France, Greece, Italy and Spain. For many people we were the first point of contact for that magic elixir aceto balsamico, balsamic vinegar made famous by Chuck Williams and served over strawberries.
In 1989, something remarkable happened: we offered an extra virgin olive oil from California. Imagine! From California! As it turns out our catalog buyer in those days was born in Lindsay, California (yes, where the olives in the can came from) and was familiar with the California table olive industry. He asked questions I didn’t know to ask at the time, such as what type of olives (they were Mission olives), where they were grown, and how they were milled. It was a fascinating early glimpse into the nascent olive oil industry here.
By the mid-’90s Williams-Sonoma was opening the first of many Grande Cuisine stores, double in size to our original stores and outfitted with European-inspired food halls. We added cook tops and olive oil tasting bars at the cash wraps to better answer customer questions, a direct result of our president visiting the stores and helping customers on the sales floor. When asked by a shopper, he was chagrined that he did not know the differences in the various oils we carried, and so opened several and tasted them with her right at the counter. He knew then that we had to build into the shopping experience the ability to explore tastes with the customer — a clear example of our commitment to serving cooks.
Over 15 years have passed since those days, and consumer interest in food, cooking and entertaining has grown at a terrific rate. Williams-Sonoma buyers still travel the world and work directly with growers to uphold over a half-century of tradition in bringing America’s cooks authentic ingredients from home and overseas.
More shops carry olive oil today, even grocery stores, and while all purveyors seem to tout the same attributes, not all olive oils are the same. The lessons of the 1980s abide at Williams-Sonoma, for today the stores carry nearly 30 different olive oils from the major growing regions around the world from producers who mill fabulous single variety or proprietary blends of olives: Arbequina from Corning, California; Picual from Jaén, Spain; Salonenque from Vallée des Baux de Provence, France; a Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo blend from Maremma in Western Tuscany, Italy, and many more.
Whether the aroma and flavor is fruity or grassy, and whether the finish buttery or peppery, all oils are fresh fruit juice to be enjoyed for cooking, baking, dipping and finishing. Different olive varieties, growing regions, harvest and milling techniques — among other things — all contribute to a special product as nuanced and lovely as fine wine.
It was with great interest that the Williams-Sonoma buyers heard about Tom Mueller and his new book on olive oil. A veteran investigative reporter with national publications such as Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, National Geographic and the New York Times, Tom published a ground breaking essay in the New Yorker in August 2007. That essay, Slippery Business: The Trade in Adulterated Olive Oil, has evolved into a best selling book released a few weeks ago called Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
As you might have guessed from the title, there are many unfortunate centuries of scandal and fraud in the olive oil industry, even to the present day. Extra Virginity uncovers some of that fraud by naming names and warning consumers about low cost, low quality oils labeled extra virgin, but adulterated with seed oils or refined olive oil and lacking all flavor, nuance and nutrition of true extra virgin oil as a result. How can you be sure of your oil? Extra Virginity encourages you to shop where you’re allowed to taste the oil, look for harvest date (not just a “best by” date) and select oils which are the freshest. If you are lucky enough to know your grower, then that is fortunate indeed.
Widely acclaimed, this book has earned a starred Kirkus Review, which sums the 256-page read: “Engrossing history, vivid contemporary reporting and a cogent call to action, expertly blended in an illuminating text.”
Northern California customers will have the chance to meet author Tom Mueller along with Alexandra Devarenne, one of North America’s top olive oil educators, and four of Williams-Sonoma’s olive oil producers in person at a special event in the flagship store in Union Square, San Francisco. If you are nearby, I hope you’ll be able to stop in, hear their stories, ask them questions, and taste some of the world’s best olive oil where Williams-Sonoma has been delivering extra virginity since 1956. Find more more information about the event here.
About the author: Liz Tagami spent the first 25 years of her career as a merchant for major US retailers, including 11 years at Williams-Sonoma. Since 2008 she’s operated Tagami International, a food and wine brokerage, as well as a consulting business called Tagami Sourcing & Services. Both businesses focus on extra virgin olive oil from the major growing regions around the world. Liz is a member of the California Olive Oil Council, a contributing writer for the Olive Oil Times, oil & vinegar columnist for Gourmet News, a panel speaker at the UC Davis Olive Center, a speaker at the olive oil symposium at CIA Greystone, and a speaker for the past three years at the TerraOlivo Congress in Jerusalem where she is a judge. She is also an advisor, lecturer and judge at Olive Japan, Tokyo.