Amphora Nueva Offers Affordable, High-Quality Olive Oil

Claire Bradley, great-granddaughter of Amphora’s founder, in the Berkeley shop. (Kim Westerman)

Claire Bradley’s Neapolitan great-grandfather brought the family to Oakland in the late 1930s by way of Brooklyn, where he’d built a successful food-importing business. While Salvatore Esposito was interested in olive oil, it wasn’t a viable business proposition at the time, so the company focused on other Italian imports. In 1989, with the third generation at the helm, the family made a big decision to focus exclusively on sourcing the best olive oil possible. But they didn’t have a storefront then. Instead, the business model focused on bringing high quality olive oil to restaurants and other food businesses. They still count among their wholesale clients Annie’s Organic, Rick and Ann’s, Semifreddis, Cugini Manzone, and Duende.

Flash forward to 2010, when Amphora Nueva opened on Domingo Ave. in Berkeley, just below the Claremont Hotel. The shop is filled with fusti, food-grade stainless steel tanks, full of olive oil from Spain, Portugal, California, Italy, Chile, Australia, Peru, Argentina, Greece, and Tunisia. And a big 750 ml bottle will only run you between $13 and $21, a huge value compared to the equally delicious oils you’ll find in the shops off the square in Healdsburg or St. Helena, where olive oil is viewed more as a luxury commodity than a staple for daily use.

Amphora’s philosophy, says Bradley, is to make ultra-premium olive oil accessible to everyone: “We don’t see ourselves as a boutique. We don’t want people to say no to olive oil because of price.”

Their selections are seasonal because producers have two harvest seasons. In the northern hemisphere, the harvest begins in September or October, before the rain sets in. In the southern hemisphere, harvest mostly occurs in May and June. So, depending when you walk in to the store, you might see a Spanish hojiblanca or a Chilean coratina front and center. And the best news is you can taste any of the selections, which are clearly identified by harvest date, free fatty acids (FFA), phenolic content, and peroxide value. But what does all this mean?

Fusti, full of oil ready for tasting, all lined up at Amphora Nueva.
Fusti, full of oil ready for tasting, all lined up at Amphora Nueva. (Kim Westerman)

Polyphenols are the humble olive’s best public relations tool, as their powerful antioxidants are largely what continues to sell Americans on the ingredient that much of the world has used as a base for cooking for thousands of years. But they also contribute significantly to the taste and style of the oil these diverse fruits yield. Do you like the burn at the back of your throat when you taste a bold, herbaceous olive oil? That’s polyphenol. Prefer a lighter, more buttery oil? Go for an oil lower in polyphenols. Whether you like the flavors that pack a polyphenol punch or not, Amphora can hook you up.

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A high FFA can indicate low quality fruit because of processing mistakes, such as too much time between harvesting and extraction or too high a temperature in the milling process. The peroxide value is important because it tells you how long the fruit has been exposed to oxygen; extreme oxidation causes the oil to be rancid.

Amphora abides by the standards for Ultra Premium olive oil, which are even stricter than those for extra-virgin. For example, the extra-virgin standard for FFA is less than .8%, whereas ultra-premium is qualified by less than .3%. And in addition to regularly tasting each oil that they source for its organoleptic qualities, they also send samples to Modern Olives in Australia, whose state-of-the-art lab analyzes the oil’s chemistry.

As a home cook and daily consumer of olive oil, I don’t focus so much on the polyphenol number, although it’s a good guide. Instead, I just taste. I love the Picuals, a common Spanish cultivar that is popular among growers for its high-volume crops and tolerance of a broad range of conditions. The oils from this variety tend to be grassy and strong, and the best are pungent without being bitter. To my palate, this style is best on salads and other raw vegetables. I prefer a Greek Koroneiki — usually peppery and reminiscent of artichokes — on cooked vegetables and meats.

Amphora also carries fusions and infusions of their Ultra Premium olive oils with herbs, fruits, and chiles. (Fusions, called agrumato in Italian, are made when ingredients are added when the olives are pressed; infusions are the result of ingredients added after the oil has been produced.) A fabulous fusion here is the Tunisian Baklouti, in which 10 pounds of the spicy green chiles from North Africa’s Barbary Coast are crushed into each pound of organic olives from the company’s own mill there.

Amphora’s house blend oil, which changes regularly, is a great bargain at $13 for 750ml. They also have aged balsamic vinegars and flavored red and white vinegars, good for creating gift combinations.

Aged balsamic and flavored vinegars line the shelves at Amphora.
Aged balsamic and flavored vinegars line the shelves at Amphora. (Kim Westerman)

What I love about this shop is its completely approachable, unprepossessing and, most importantly, proletariat approach to this healthful and delicious food.

Amphora opened a second branch in Lafayette in November, 2011 and will open a third in San Anselmo in the next few weeks.

Amphora Nueva - Berkeley Olive Oil Works
2928 Domingo Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94611
Ph: (510) 704-9300
Hours: Daily, 10am-6pm
Facebook: Amphora: Berkeley Olive Oil Works
Twitter: @AMPHORABERKELEY

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Amphora Nueva Lafayette
7 Fiesta Ln. [Map]
Lafayette, CA 94549
Ph: (925) 310-4681
Hours: Sun-Thurs, 10am-6:30pm; Fri-Sat, 10am-7pm
Facebook: Amphora Nueva Lafayette

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