When someone says it’s preposterous to consider exporting California olive oil, they have not yet met Nancy Ash. She may not literally export the silky stuff, but she exports an equally valuable EVOO commodity: home-grown expertise. Her knowledge and skills as an olive oil taster and educator have taken her to Italy, Palestine, Albania and even closer to home, the state of Georgia.
With a history as long as any in the domestic olive oil industry, Nancy was the 2012 recipient of the California Olive Oil Council’s Pioneer award. Considering that she first joined the organization in 1996 and has served continuously since that time, it was a very well-deserved honor. Probably most notable in COOC Executive Director Patty Darragh’s comments about the award was Nancy’s unfailing willingness to take on every role and responsibility the organization requested over the years. She is the embodiment of the best goodwill ambassador for California’s olive oil industry. We were delighted that Nancy took time from her schedule to share some of her history and her thoughts on the future with us.
Why did you first get involved in the olive oil industry?
I began my career in the food industry cooking and waiting tables in restaurants after graduating from college. Various ensuing jobs – teaching cooking classes, marketing kitchen appliances, distributing cheese to restaurants and stores – led me to a management position with Manicaretti Italian Food Imports in 1993 where I was responsible for sales of high end Italian extra virgin olive oils. I attended seminars to learn more about olive oil and met a number of Californians involved with the renaissance of this state’s industry. I was intrigued by the opportunity to work with local products.
But my love of olive oil goes further back to my childhood. I was the rare American who grew up eating many dishes made with olive oil. My stepfather, whose mother was Sicilian, cooked on the weekends. My own cooking has always leaned towards Mediterranean cuisine and I use copious amounts of olive oil in my recipes. The difference is that nowadays I use California certified extra virgin.
What do you think is the industry’s biggest challenge?
I believe that educating consumers is the industry’s biggest challenge. We must create a market for the product we are producing, and I think the compelling marketing story for Californian olive oil is that it is local, fresh and of genuine extra virgin quality. Even outside of California, domestic olive oil is more local and fresh than imported oils. We need to effectively communicate this message to all American consumers including chefs, who mostly consider olive oil as a commodity purchased based on price only and not as a fresh agricultural product.
What do you most enjoy about the business?
Although I have worked most of my career in sales and marketing, I feel that I have found my true calling as an educator. I love leading tastings; I can see the discovery on someone’s face as they taste and understand the difference between positive and negative flavors. I feel incredibly lucky that I was chosen to be trained as a taster in 1998, and in my seminars I try to pass that experience forward.
What are you working on now?
As a consultant I am always juggling clients’ projects, tasting and blending oils, assisting with marketing and business planning. I am also working on an economic development project to help Palestinian producers launch a third-party certified extra virgin olive oil, beginning with the U.S. marketplace and followed by Europe and other countries. As the COOC Education Coordinator, I am responsible for training their Taste Panel apprentices and providing continuing education for panel members.
Where is your favorite vacation spot?
My husband, John, and I love to take beach vacations, although with busy careers, it’s hard to find the time. Hawaii is our favorite spot, but we sneak away to Mission Beach in San Diego occasionally for a quick weekend getaway.
What quality do you most admire in a person?
Honesty, even if I don’t like or agree with the point of view.
What is your favorite food and olive oil pairing?
Burrata cheese with my recipe for 2-tomato salsa (fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, herbs and a robust extra virgin olive oil) with sweet baguette.
What is your favorite place on earth?
I have been inspired by so many places that I have been fortunate to visit that it is difficult to choose just one place. Among my top choices are the duplex in New York where I grew up, Yosemite where John and I were married, an overlook on a mountain road in Albania called Top of the World where you look out over the Ionian Sea and down to see the dangerously curvy road that gets you there, and the island of Santorini in Greece. Every time I travel I hope to find my next favorite place!
Albania Top of the World
Albania – the road down to the sea
What is your most satisfying achievement?
My first trip to Albania was fraught with issues such as language barriers, power outages, intermittent running water, and temperatures over 100° with no air-conditioning. Despite these conditions, on the last day of the sensory training there was a defining moment as the participants announced their scores I realized that the group had calibrated their palates to each other’s. I stopped the class and asked if they were listening to each other, and if they realized what they had accomplished. It was such a rewarding moment for me as well as them.
What was your most memorable meal?
When I was working as the National Sales Manager for Restaurant LuLu Gourmet Products, our Executive Chef brought us to his friends Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand’s restaurant in Chicago named TRU. We enjoyed the chef’s tasting menu which included the infamous Caviar Staircase and a crudo fish course served in a nested martini glass that had a live fish swimming in the bottom part. Everything at dinner that evening was incredible.
What’s next on your horizon?
I am excited about international efforts to establish more meaningful quality standards for olive oil, which will add value to genuine extra virgin olive oils and allow artisan producers to thrive. The current state of the California industry was unimaginable 15 years ago when I began working with California olive oil producers, and I look forward to what we will achieve over the next 15 years.