Most humans have passions of one sort or another, but how they evolve is another story altogether, and often a defining “a- ha” moment leads to an obsession. Such was the case with Curtis Cord, the founder and publisher of Olive Oil Times, an online publication whose mission is threefold — to provide news about all things olive oil, to educate its readers about its life-enhancing benefits and to rate the best specimens during its annual worldwide competition, now in its sixth year.
A Larchmont native, Curtis and his wife, Kelley, were traveling in St. Tropez eight years ago when they happened upon a delightful shop and sampled some of the preeminent olive oils produced in France. The shop owner generously shared her in-depth knowledge about the characteristics, production methods and intricacies of the varying samples — in essence, tasting notes — like those to which we’ve become accustomed when referring to wine or single-origin coffees. They left with not only some fine oil but a newfound curiosity for this proven healthy fat.
Returning to New York, Curtis set out to connect with others who shared his passion, so he started a personal blog about tasting olive oils at various shops around the city, cooking with olive oil and other related topics. From the first post, he knew he was onto something. The comments, feedback and readership grew at a rapid pace and validated a belief that he suspected may be true. “Because of the richness of the culture and variety of oils in the marketplace, I knew it was something that deserved a more journalistic approach,” he tells me.
I ask him if Kelley was as enthusiastic as he was about this endeavor, or if she thought he had gone mad. “Definitely the latter,” he responded. But that did not assuage his passion in the least. After only a few short weeks of blogging, Curtis launched Olive Oil Times and created the online publication of the same name, which eight years later is regarded as the only commercial forum discussing all things olive oil such as news, products and life-changing studies. He hired a few freelance writers with a global reach who wrote articles highlighting celebrated examples from different regions of the world. There was no commercial aspect, no particular point of view or bias. They were just posting olive oil news and studies from peer-recognized journals.
Quickly the industry began to recognize the publication for bringing cohesion to a largely unstructured industry. Hundreds of readers became thousands and the recognition ultimately led to a “60 Minutes” segment featuring Curtis, signaling a growing interest in not only olive oil’s benefits, but in the publication’s activities. What began with the aim to get people talking led to educating the public about the need to know what it’s buying and consuming. Readers and culinary experts started to trust this new voice on the scene, one not promoting or advocating anything other than knowledge and education.
In the beginning, Olive Oil Times’ focus was on health. “The public should want to know more about it,” Curtis said, “especially if they genuinely want to prolong their lives and feed their bodies in the best possible way.” Because olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, it’s heart healthy. Studies from highly accredited universities and medical schools have proven the benefits to stabilization of blood sugar levels, warding off diabetes and improving cognitive disorders such as dementia by increasing brain size. Thousands of articles amassed and archived on Olive Oil Times’ website bear out these claims and studies.
Curtis urges buyers of olive oil to educate themselves by going to retailers who offer samples of their goods, because smell and taste are what determine the finest oils. On first sniff, only the aroma of fresh, green olives should be detected, nothing else. In the tasting, the complexity, harmony and pungency of the flavors should be pronounced and pure, and also to one’s liking. The range of characteristics can run from absolute substandard specimens all the way to perfection. For an olive oil to be classified as extra virgin, it needs to pass certain chemical testing benchmarks, but the industry is only lightly controlled. Also to meet this labeling, the oils should not display any defects, which he feels American consumers have come to accept. Defects are presented as rancidity caused by the conditions of the olives, or spoiled fruit used in production. Other defects include winey, fermented or vinegary taste and muddy sediments.
My conversation with Curtis is more of an education than it is an interview. His knowledge, expertise and willingness to share his passion naturally lead to a discussion of the six-day intensive courses in olive oil for industry professionals and interested individuals, currently offered at the SoHo Manhattan and San Jose, California, campuses of the International Culinary Center, formerly the French Culinary Institute.
Starting in January, they will be offered in London, too. Curtis cites the influence of “the late great” Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder of the original institute, for her influence on his development of a course of study focused entirely on olive oil. When Hamilton’s life was cut short at the age of 67 in a 2016 automobile accident, The New York Times’ obituary noted, “She was…(also) clear-eyed about what makes for good cooking. ‘The whole basis of cooking well doesn’t necessarily have to do with a recipe or the genius of a cook. It has to do with the ingredients,’ Ms. Hamilton said in 1999. ‘If you don’t have a beautiful tomato, you’re never going to get a great tomato soup.’” This culinary mantra is repeated often and by many. Technique aside, good food comes down to quality ingredients.
The average American, he tells me, buys the cheapest oil with the words “extra virgin olive oil” on the label, and then keeps it next to the range where heat and light cause it to spoil more quickly. “The typical consumer doesn’t understand the points of difference, and we are trying to change that,” Curtis says. He believes, too, that there is a correlation between an oil’s quality and its health benefits.
“Remember, olive oil is not a cure for disease, but it does improve our chances of diminishing their effects,” he said.
As impartial observers of the industry, Curtis and his team at Olive Oil Times established a worldwide competition for producers in 2013, attracting 565 samples from 22 countries in its first year. Held in April, the event, known as the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, has grown steadily every year since. It attracts an increasing number of producers who set out to craft the best oils to be judged by a professional panel in an event open only to staff and the media. This year they had to cut off entries at 1,000 samples from 27 countries, many European and South American, but others from far-flung lands such as Japan, China and Lebanon. Each producer pays an entry fee, submits all the details of their product and ships three bottles over the months of January to March. They are held in temperature-controlled vaults until the tasting, evaluation and rating by 18 judges from three countries. This year, 12,000 people watched a live stream of the event, a fun fact that Curtis is proud to reveal.
I ask Curtis, now residing in Rhode Island, if he ever returns to the land of his roots in Westchester County. “Yeah,” he says, “to go to Ray’s in Mamaroneck or Nicky’s down at the Larchmont train station for pizza.”
They must use good olive oil.