Twelve years ago, Bryan Saba saw an ad for an olive oil company on Craigslist and, after meeting the seller, decided it fit his needs for an easy-to-run retirement business.
“I told myself if I had another business,” he said, “it was going to have to be small enough to see from one side to the other and I would have to be able to do everything myself. And with this company, I can do it all. Once I understood the cadence to the recipes, I was able to repeat them with a quality I am pretty proud of.”
Big Paw Olive Oil Company was named after a basset hound that chased a rabbit into a field of wild sage. The sage was used to infuse olive oil given away as Christmas gifts. One of the recipients was a chef who declared it the best olive oil he had ever tasted and asked for some bottles to use in his kitchen. And with that, the business was born.
After Saba bought the company he joined the California Olive Oil Council and took some classes at UC-Davis, where he met farmers who were ready to supply him with the oil he needed.
“I help them by purchasing their olive oil,” he said, “typically at the end of the year. When we started, we were located in Campbell but we moved to Hollister five years ago, in part because we wanted to have our own trees. We now have a couple of hundred trees and a friend of mine across town has 3,500 trees. We get that milled and it produces a couple of barrels of oil.”
Saba, who owned a company that manufactured test hardware for the semiconductor industry, has gone through eight 55-gallon barrels of olive oil so far this year. He relies on growers around California, most within 200 miles, to make up the difference. The fruit he uses for infusing the vinegars also comes from California farms. Up to eight gallons of fruit are added to a barrel and aged for at least 30 days.
Big Paw produces three basic olive oils. Arbosana is soft olive oil with subtle flavors. Koroneiki is bolder, with more of a bite in the back of the throat. California Gold, Big Paw’s best-seller, falls somewhere in the middle. Saba says it represents his company the best.
“I love my Koroneiki Early Harvest,” he said, “but California Gold is what I take with me when I travel and I give it away as gifts.”
Most of Big Paw’s sales come from farmers markets from San Mateo to Carmel and his products are handled by five different independent contractors. Saba holds periodic open houses for his sales associates with catered foods that use all of his oils and vinegars to get their feedback and hear what customers are saying.
Saba, however, values customer contact and will occasionally work at farmers markets himself.
“I do several of the events every year because I want to be sure I know what people are liking,” he said. “For example, I was talking to a guy who asked if we had ever considered infusing Indian spices like garam masala in our olive oil. The minute he said that I thought, ‘we should try that.’ I think it might have a delicate enough flavor that you can use it even if you don’t cook Indian food.”
Big Paw sells over 40 different products. Besides olive oil and vinegar, there is a line of smoked ketchup, including chipotle ketchup, a special dipping sauce in association with KPIG radio, salts, bread dippers, and a steak rub. While COVID restrictions have temporarily stopped tastings at the farmers markets, Saba does conduct appointment-only tastings at Big Paw’s production location at 1275 Santa Ana Valley Road in Hollister.
For Saba, the many varieties of products are valuable tools for experienced home chefs, but they are also a boon for people who are just getting used to the kitchen.
“A lot of people want to learn more about cooking,” he said, “so why not make it easy? Do you want to try lemon chicken tonight? Garlic chicken? The variety of our products gives you the chance to try something new very simply without spending a lot of time.”
The oils and vinegars of Big Paw Olive Company
Arbosana Olive Oil “Olives used for oils are just like grapes used for wine,” Saba said, “every variety is going to be different.” Arbosana is a specific cultivar and the mildest of the plain olive oils. It has a distinct melted butter flavor that makes it a good multi-purpose oil to use in pan-frying when you do not want strong flavors to intrude.
California Gold Olive Oil The most popular of the plain olive oils, it’s made of three different olives blended to a specific profile. It has an abundant olive flavor and aroma with a little bit of sourness at the end. Saba describes this as the perfect olive oil for people who have never really paid attention to an olive oil before.
Koroneiki Olive Oil The first thing you notice is an aroma of grass and tomato leaf. This is a heavier oil that has less of the full-fruit flavor and it brings a healthy burn to the back of the throat. The flavor resolves itself without lingering—Saba said that good olive oil is not greasy and his Koroneiki does not leave any greasy residue in the mouth after a taste. This oil is for when you want a bolder flavor, and would be great for frying fish or as a bread dipper.
Lemon Olive Oil This is not a typical lemon oil, some of which are saturated to the point of tasting like candy. This oil has the lemon flavor floating on top of a hint of bitterness that comes from using lemons that have been distilled with the rind. This would be excellent as a salad oil or to use as a marinade for fish or chicken.
Garlic Rosemary Olive Oil This is the most popular of Big Paw’s products and it’s not difficult to tell why. The aroma is intoxicating, with a roasted garlic smell and mild rosemary notes. The flavor is just as intense and appealing, but it flips the flavors, with the rosemary dominating. This is an easy oil to find uses for—Saba suggests slathering it on meat before grilling. It would be a perfect oil to mix into mashed potatoes or use as a finishing oil over vegetables.
Basil Garlic Olive Oil Where the garlic-rosemary oil has a savory edge, the basil-garlic is a little sweeter and a little less bold. The greenness of this oil jumps out of the aroma, which is of the entire basil plant, not just the leaves. As with the rosemary, garlic again takes a back seat to the basil, which is present but not assertive. Saba recommends using this on pasta with a few red pepper flakes as an easy entree. This is a beautiful oil.
Hot Tuscan Olive Oil “This is your secret recipe for chili, shrimp, or spaghetti sauce,” said Saba. “This is one of our strongest sellers.” An intensely aromatic combination of cayenne pepper, basil, and garlic, it has a latent heat on the backside, which builds in intensity. It fades away smoothly, leaving just a hint of a residual bite. This is a fun oil that would work well with chopped tomatoes as a kind of salsa, drizzled over roasted corn on the cob, or with grilled shrimp.
Mission Fig Vinegar This is the best-selling vinegar with a taste of raisins, it has a sweet and tart flavor that gives you the full taste of fruit. Saba says all it takes to create a reduction from this vinegar is to let some sit in a dish or bowl for a day. The bitterness balances out the sweetness and the richness of the fig flavor to make it perfect for use in desserts—the first thing that came to my mind was to drizzle this over cheesecake. But it would be equally welcome over flank steak, green beans, or soft white cheese.
Classic Balsamic Vinegar This is a straight balsamic vinegar that uses a proprietary process to mimic barrel-aging. While not the classic aged (and expensive) Italian balsamic vinegar, this is a pretty good facsimile. This would make an impressive show simply poured over slices of fresh tomatoes with a dusting of black pepper. The bitterness and sweetness combined with the complex layers of flavors make this one a showstopper. I think it’s more versatile than the Mission Fig and this is one I would definitely stock in my kitchen.
Blond Vinegar The base is white balsamic vinegar with a hint of apples—it has the same brightness as apple cider vinegar with hints of pepper and vanilla and perhaps a bit of cherry. Saba recommends pouring this on fruits like strawberries and melons, where it intensifies the flavor and adds its own richness. A small amount added to some creme fraiche would make a great salad dressing.
Hibiscus Vinegar This vinegar was the result of a request from Whole Foods. “I am not sure if hibiscus is a flavor or an aroma,” Saba said. “Do you taste it or do you smell it?” The aroma is sweet and the flavor is close to grape jelly with a touch of bitterness. Saba recommends this drizzled on spinach or kale, I can see it matched with poached pears. It would also work well with a bit of it mixed with some tequila or rum but it is also flavorful such that, served chilled in a shot glass, it would make a nice aperitif.
Sweet Peach Vinegar Another sweet dessert-like vinegar that would work as a salad dressing or just to add to a dish or a drink as a flavor boost. Saba says it would be great to add to anything from a martini to a milkshake. It sounds counterintuitive, but this would be charming with fish and chips.
Bear Paw Olive Oil is sold at local farmer’s markets. 250ml bottles start at $15; 750ml bottles start at $40; and 4-liter bottles start at $165.
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