30 May

Cold off the press … olive oil from California

By Maryline Larocque

If ever there were a natural food and wine “pairing” in the raw, it’s grapes and olives. In Spain, Italy, Greece, and now California, the two crops are virtually inseparable. Antoinette Addison of Figueroa Farms (www.FigueroaFarms.com) inherited a third of an olive orchard in Provence, France. She and her husband, Shawn, bought out her siblings and restored not only the orchards, but the property as well. Back home in the Santa Ynez Valley, they started planting olive trees in 2000; 2005 was their first real crop.

POPULAR VARIETIES

“There are two categories of olives,” Shawn said. “Those you cure and those that make oil. Small olives are loaded with oil. The taste is influenced by the varietal and ripeness. Green olives produce spicy, bitter oil; ripe ones are mild, and you get more oil but lose the polyphenols, the ‘healthy’ fat. We shoot for a ruby color.” He rattled off popular Italian varieties: Leccino, Maurino, Pendolino, Itrana, San Felice, Grappolo, Manzanillo and Frantoio, “which is loaded with fabulous oil. More spicy, peppery than California olives, which are more fruity.”

Antoinette and Shawn built an olive mill in 2002 and process olives for many local growers. “It’s a double hammer, double grid mill,” he said. “And it can process one ton of olives an hour. A ‘hammer’ (metal bar) forces the olives through two concentric rings with holes in them. The first ring strips the skin, which is more tannic and bitter; the second makes the paste. You press the paste to get the oil.”It replicates a stone mill but doesn’t grind grit from the stone into the paste. It also speeds up the process by 45 minutes, which significantly reduces exposure to oxygen, which affects the taste and healthy components of the oil. The oil produced is also much stronger. People often blend various oils to get the taste they want. Others will plant a ‘field blend,’ which means that the percentage of each varietal planted determines the varietal’s percentage in the oil. All the olives are picked and pressed together, regardless of ripeness.”

A ton of olives can produce from six to 45 gallons, or more, of oil, depending on the varietal. “You start with a ton of olives and wind up with 1,600-1,800 pounds of waste,” Shawn revealed. Olives are usually harvested in late October or early November. “Because climate differences influence ripening,” Shawn explained, “the harvest moves north from L.A. to Paso Robles over a period of two months.”

The urge “to do something different” motivated Gus and Melinda Sousoures to sell their Christmas tree farm in Oregon and move to California and grow olives.

At their Olive Hill Farm in Santa Ynez (www.olivehilloil.com), they planted 1,420 trees of one varietal, Lucca, developed at the University of California at Davis from the Italian Frantoio specifically to accommodate the California climate. “It’s resistant to frost down to 10 degrees,” Gus said. Their extra virgin oil is golden green, with a very fresh, clean, lively grassy flavor.

REMEMBERING TUSCANY

Steve and Catherine Pepe (www.clospepe.com) started with 300 olive trees adjacent to their vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills and now have doubled to 600. They planted their orchard to achieve a Tuscan field blend of 30 percent Leccino, 30 percent Frantoio, 30 percent Maurino, 8 percent Pendolino and 2 percent Manzanillo. They harvest all the fruit at the same time, so some is green, some ripe, some in between. Their pungent extra virgin olive oil with hints of apple, green grass and black pepper explodes in your mouth.

Theo Stephan makes not only olive oil, but also vinegar under her brand name of Global Gardens (www.globalgardensgifts.com). She is also opening a shop in Los Olivos over Memorial Day weekend.

She works with 2,017 olive trees divided among Mission, Manzanilla, Koroneiki (she imported 500 trees from Greece) and Farga. Her extra virgin oils are the only ones in Southern California certified organic. The fruit is crushed whole, and the oil is not filtered. She makes a “softer” single varietal “Mission” oil and several “fruity, grassy” blends. Theo segued into vinegars because she didn’t know what to do with a bumper crop of raspberries. “I cooked them down and made syrup,” she said, “but that didn’t solve the problem.”

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