Photo by Jeremy Ball
As editor of Pressing Times, Caroline Beck has helped guide the Olive Oil Source to its position as the top ranked olive oil-related website in the world, but when I first met her, back in 2003 as the first customer of our new mill in Santa Ynez, she struck me as an enigma – at one moment a serious and successful business exec and at the next, an excited student of the olive oil process. She took on the world of olive oil with the same zeal she applied to high tech in its heady days – seamlessly moving from Apple and Microsoft to Arbequina and Moriolo.
When we discussed her experiences and how her life led to an olive oil obsession, she spoke about various bouts of retirement – the first resulting in a very extended trip to Paris and the Cordon Bleu; the second building a successful specialty food business in California making award-winning olive oil. But from my perspective, she seems the least likely person I know to ever retire. I think our interview confirms my suspicion.
Why did you first get involved in the olive oil industry?
In 1998, George and I bought a small ranch on the central coast of California with an orchard of 700 trees of varying cultivars and age – stately, tall and gnarled Sevillanos that were over 50 years old and smaller, younger trees of a few varietals. Not knowing anything about olives, we didn’t recognize that the plantings were more for show than production, but that didn’t stop us. We were romantics – hook, line and sinker – about the possibilities. Our goal was simple - to make a great product from the fruit. Whether it would be profitable or not was something to worry about later. It was the start of a love affair with olive oil that continues to this day.
What do you think is the industry’s biggest challenge?
In a word, consumer confusion. When you step outside the “industry bubble”, most consumers just don’t know much about olive oil. What they’ve learned by tasting poor quality is to like poor quality. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Teach the teachers – chefs, tasting bar owners, culinary schools – and they can teach their customers. Facebook and Twitter have proved the reach and power of shared knowledge. If social networks can spark the flame to topple corrupt governments, it shouldn’t be hard to undo years of deception and fraud in the olive oil industry.
What do you most enjoy about the business?
Olive oil never disappoints my passion for learning something new. I’ve been tasting olive oil and writing about it for 14 years and I’m still just scratching the surface. I recently attended a CIA (Culinary Institute of America) conference that showcased incredible new ways to use olive oil in the kitchen that blew me away. Frozen, micro-bubbles of extra virgin olive oil created by world-class Spanish chef, Dani Garcia that melted into a silky sensation on my tongue. Chef Maria Jose San Ramon’s take on incorporating a classic Spanish Picual olive oil into her award-winning tapas. Discovering new ways to use this age-old ingredient thrills me.
Where is your favorite vacation spot?
New Zealand tops my list for its natural splendor, history and low-key attitude. But, I just spent a week with Nancy Harmon Jenkins in Italy at Villa Campestri, the famed olive oil resort in the Mugello region of Tuscany to soak up more new olive oil experiences and found that it could push NZ right off the page. It was an oleophile’s dream.
What is the most important next step for the industry?
Combating fraud will always be top of the list, but to get there we have to rethink how we introduce people to olive oil. I am a big believer in keeping the story simple. If we can all get on the same page, it will be much easier to create a story that sticks. My second pet peeve is about sampling. I hold a slightly different belief from many in the industry that olive oil tastings should always be done “neat”. After selling our olive oil at farmers’ markets for six years, six days a week, we learned that it’s just not natural for most consumers to be introduced to the product that way. You don’t drink olive oil like wine, why would you sample it the same way? Would you give someone a pat of butter and ask them to swallow it whole?
What quality do you most admire in a person?
Curiosity, open-mindedness and enthusiasm for all things new.
What is your favorite food and olive oil pairing?
A simple slice of grilled bread, rubbed rough with a clove of garlic and dripping with a pungent, olio nuovo straight from the mill. Although, my latest fixation includes adding a little sautéed red mustard greens as the icing on this earthy cake.
What is your favorite place on earth?
I can’t say I have one yet. As a life goal though, I’m determined to keep looking.
What is your most satisfying achievement?
Earlier in my career and at the height of the dot.com bust, I took on the challenge of a turn-around for a pretty troubled company. At a time when thousands were being laid off in the high-tech industry, we managed the best possible result: the company made it through the transition and no one lost their job. I felt I’d achieved success.
What is your biggest frustration?
Learning that it’s not possible to master golf in ninety days.
What was your most memorable meal?
Years ago, I stayed at Alain Ducasse’s La Bastide de Moustiers in Provence soon after it achieved its first Michelin star. From seeing chefs gather garden-fresh ingredients in the wee twilight hours to sampling the perfect Banon cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves at the end of the night. The magic of a meal is not just the perfection of what is on the plate, it is that moment when you realize it’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
What’s next on your horizon?
Trying to maintain balance. The terribly-dominant right side of my brain stays happy by consulting with companies about staying profitable in the specialty food business, writing and serving as editor of Pressing Times and trying to stay on top of it all with my blog. But any writer is always working on that next book. Mine happens to be about making the mysterious world of olive oil a lot less complicated and a lot more user-friendly. It’s exciting to be part of an industry that is undergoing such a big and tasty transformation.