The California company that makes it, the Smoked Olive, is a dream come true — literally — of Al Hartman, a longtime backyard pitman in Sonoma who designs and builds his own grills. “One morning he woke up, looked at me, said he had a dream, and said to me, ‘What about smoked olive oil?’” said his wife, Brenda Chatelain. “And I thought, ‘That sounds horrible.’ But I didn’t want to crush his dreams, so I said, ‘I’m not feeling it, but okay.’ ”
Hartman, 63, tinkered for three years. In 2008, he hit upon a method for gently smoking the oil with a combination of woods without exposing it to heat, light or air, any one of which can degrade olive oil. The couple took the smoked oil to a farmers market in Sonoma, where it sold out in a single day. Soon thereafter, the Smoked Olive went retail.
The Smoked Olive, which uses oil from two nearby Northern California estates, might be the best-known player in an admittedly little-known market. California, where the olive oil business is burgeoning, produces much of the country’s smoked oils. Other producers include enFuso, which uses oils from the Capay Valley, in the northern end of the state, and Temecula, which has its own orchards in the south. But I’ve also tried a hickory-and-pecan-smoked oil from a South Carolina company called Holy Smoke, which gets its oil from California, and a mesquite-smoked oil from Texas Olive Ranch, which uses olives grown on its South Texas land.
All use extra-virgin olive oil and, in their own manner, cold-smoke the liquid. Flavors vary considerably. As expected, given the strong flavor of the wood, the green-tinged, golden-hued mesquite olive oil has an aggressive, immediate smoke that went directly up my nostrils. The smoke flavor of Holy Smoke’s clear yellow oil is not as strong but is pungent nonetheless.
The Smoked Olive produces a greenish-gold oil called Napa that’s mildly smoky and a vibrant green oil called Sonoma that has a buttery, rich roundness up front and finishes with a soft, full, smoky flavor. Protective of their methods, Chatelain declined to answer my questions about the woods they use. She’d say only that they don’t use Liquid Smoke, they do use a blend of woods, and grapevines are involved. Whatever they are doing, the result is luscious.