Maia Hirschbein’s job is a dream come true for any olive oil lover. Certified as an oleologist, or olive oil tasting expert, Hirschbein spends her life surrounded by her passion: extra virgin olive oil. We chatted with California Olive Ranch’s oleologist and EVOO educator about how she followed her bliss to end up where she is today.
How did you end up becoming an oleologist?
I discovered my passion for olive oil while studying for my Masters in Italy at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. When it was time to write my thesis, I returned home to California to learn more about the olive oil industry. I enrolled in tasting classes to gain an understanding of the sensory analysis of olive oil more deeply. In March of 2013 I had the honor of taking the olive oil taster certification class with ONAOO (National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters), which certified me as an Oleologist. The exam requires one to taste through four substances (rancid oil, vinegar, fusty oil, and musty oil) and arrange eight samples of each in varying intensity in the proper order. It requires a high level of olfactory sensitivity.
What are some of the things you do as an EVOO educator?
I travel throughout the U.S. and conduct olive oil tastings for a wide range of end users—from home cooks to restaurant chefs. In my local community in the Bay Area, I teach regular classes at 18 Reasons and Healdsburg SHED.
What types of soil and growing conditions produce the best EVOO’s?
Olives love to grow in a Mediterranean climate in well-drained and well-aerated soils. Mediterranean climates typically have relatively cool winters with hot dry summers. Frost can seriously damage olive trees, therefore a region with mild winters is best. On a higher level, climate, soil type, and management practices all play a role in the quality and flavor profile of olive oil. The genetics of the tree also plays a large role: there are over 2000 types of olives in the world, and many of these varieties have specific soil and climate preferences. In California, we grow approximately 70 varieties of olives, Arbequina being the most prolific. Arbequina is native to Spain, but has grown happily in California soils under more intensive production— like the way we farm at California Olive Ranch.
How do you use the different California Olive Ranch olive oils in cooking? Any favorite pairings?
I use Everyday on a daily basis- hence the name Everyday! I use this oil in my scrambled eggs in the morning, and when I’m home in the evening I often use it for roasting vegetables. I love to use the Arbequina as vinaigrette oil; it really compliments the sweetness of greens. When I make a pizza or pasta, I love to drizzle it with Millers Blend, which has a nice pepperiness that tastes great as a finisher.
What is something surprising about being an oleologist that people might not realize?
The most surprising part about being one is that one exists in the first place. There is a whole industry of people that taste olive oils and are experts when it comes to finding flaws in olive oil, and finding the best pairing options with a great olive oil. Olive oil is one of those passions that once you discover how good high quality extra virgin olive oil tastes, you will never go back.