Meet Market Hall Foods' Very Own Olive Oil Experts: Part Two
Sandy Sonnenfelt, Director of Prepared Foods and Pasta Program
In honor of Olive Oil Month at Market Hall Foods, we sat down to chat with two important members of the California Olive Oil industry, Linda Sikorski and Sandy Sonnenfelt. In Part Two, we feature Director of Prepared Foods and the Pasta Program, Sandy. Join us as she regales us with stories about her olive oil sensory training, becoming a member of the COOC Taste Panel, deciding to use extra virgin olive oil in the Market Hall Foods kitchens and why she sees herself as an “olive oil missionary.”
Sandy Sonnenfelt came to Market Hall Foods in 1995 with an abundance of worldly experience. She originally hails from South Africa and lived on a kibbutz in Israel for ten years before moving to California in 1983. After taking the sensory evaluation olive oil course at UC Davis, Sandy became an apprentice of the COOC (California Olive Oil Council) Taste Panel, ultimately snagging an honored position as a panel member. She has held this position for the past sixteen years, using her extra virgin olive oil expertise to help award worthy California olive oils with the COOC Seal Certification.
How did you become knowledgeable about olive oil?
The first thing I did was the olive oil course at UC Davis. Then, at the COOC (California Olive Oil Council), you have to do an arrangement test, to see whether or not you have the innate ability to be trained as a tester. You have several sessions tasting thirteen glasses of varied intensities of olive oil. They are lined up, and one glass would be out of line. You had to fit it into the line in the appropriate position.
After I passed the arrangement test, I was invited to become an apprentice of the COOC Tasting Panel. And, of course, I said yes! I was thrilled. I then became a panel member, and we meet every second Thursday.
How has the olive oil program changed since you've been here at Market Hall?
We are certainly stocking a lot more California oils because they have gotten better and better. What has also changed is the intensity of our interest. I think Market Hall Foods was the first retailer to really take olive oil seriously.
Also, we are really insistent on quality, and the awareness just keeps growing. A lot of olive oil producers want to be in our stores. So we have the opportunity to taste—how you grow is by tasting—and compare different oils.
Sara [Wilson, owner] regards olive oil as one of her top priorities, which filters down to everybody. And Sara has been an incredible support to the California olive oil industry. Really amazing. She won the COOC Pioneer Award.
Are you only supposed to pair certain oils with certain foods?
Actually, it's all about personal preference! Different oils will bring out different flavors.
Pairing olive oil with food is one of those things that I get a lot of joy out of. I love trying new things and expanding my horizons. So play with your food and your oil!
For example, when using oil to dip with bread, you could use any extra virgin olive oil. A lighter olive oil mimics butter, but a more robust oil may make the flavor of the bread more exciting. The same goes for pairing with mozzarella! Lighter oils will bring out the mozzarella's creaminess, while robust oils will emphasize the cheese's sweetness and also add elements of bitterness, pungency and vibrancy.
What would you say to individuals who hold on to "fancy" oils for a long time?
I would say, “please don’t do that! Use it!” EVEN IF you feel like you only want to drizzle with it, and you’re not using it fast enough, start cooking with it. Enjoy it.
You can bake with olive oil too, right?
You absolutely CAN bake with olive oil! And, you know, our Orange-Scented Olive Oil Cake is a really good example of using oil, and our Challah is too. You can pretty successfully, in most cases, use olive oil to bake. Fran Gage is an expert in butter-to-olive-oil baking ratios, which you can find on the COOC website; generally, it's three quarters the amount of oil to what the recipe calls for in butter.
How many bottles of oil do you have at home?
Probably between five and seven at any time. However, olive oil does degrade over time and should be used within 2-3 months of opening. When I see that they’re getting low, I’ll give them to Stuart (my husband) and just say “You gotta use this. Just use it on salad, use it on steak straight off the grill, use it on ice cream.”
What would you say to people who are intimidated by olive oil?
I would say, first of all, don’t be intimidated. It’s only food. And then I would say, “You’ve come to the right place!” Because we will let you taste as much as you like and we will talk to you about what you’re tasting. When you come to a place like ours, you know that everything is already really good. Come talk to us, we’ll guide you through a tasting, and then in the end you’ll pick an oil that speaks to you.
What are the benefits of buying oil from a specialty store like Market Hall Foods?
We are totally judgment free! We love all of our oils, and want people to have a good time trying them out. Don't get hung up with the intricacies of it. Just use it and enjoy it—it’s healthy and it’ll bring you pleasure. Besides the health properties, it adds a dimension to food that is very easy to achieve.
Can good olive oil be affordable?
Oh, definitely. In terms of buying from us—if you’re buying from our bulk cannister, it’s very competitively-priced. We have several other oils that are what I would term “everyday oil” that are very versatile and have really excellent price points. It’s undoubtedly more expensive than canola, but much better for you and so much more flavorful.
Does Market Hall Foods use extra virgin olive oil in the kitchens?
We absolutely do! It's the same oil as the Market Hall Blend in the bulk canister that we sell in our retail shops. And that was a huge deal, starting to use extra virgin olive oil in the kitchens. After one of the COOC events I was talking to producers and they were asking us about our bulk oil needs. And I started thinking . . . wouldn’t it be good to start using California extra virgin olive oil in all our kitchens?
It’s something we stand by. There’s a direct connection between our kitchens and the bulk oil we offer, and people see we’re EXTREMELY serious about olive oil. There’s a lot of passion. I regard us as olive oil missionaries. That’s part of the mission of what I do. I’m part of the little band of olive oil missionaries.
Do you feel this way about wine?
Wine? No. Food, yes. And politics.
Back to Part One: the history of CA EVOO at Market Hall Foods with Senior Grocery Buyer Linda Sikorski