There was a time, in the beginning of my love affair with olive oil nearly two decades ago, when I thought all good extra virgin olive oil came from Italy. A number of years later, I expanded my geographical horizons to include the rest of Europe. Then I discovered olive oils from the Middle East and was similarly smitten.
But now look! Right here, right now, California is producing extraordinarily good olive oils. I feel like we’re reliving the time when folks finally realized California wine could be as good and sometimes better then French wine. Now we are making olive oil as good and often better than the liquid gold from Italy. And all of Europe. And the Middle East. It is a revolution!
Or maybe the cusp of a revolution. The US still imports a whopping 97% of its olive oil.
But here’s the crazy thing. Olive oil is a “fresh product”. It does not have an unlimited shelf life. So when you buy olive oil from, say, Greece, you do so with the hope that it hasn’t taken a slow boat to get here. It’s not that old olive oil will make you sick, it’s that it will eventually taste bad. (So if you have a bottle someone gave you that you’ve been saving for a special occasion, seize the day– the special occasion is now!)
When olive oil is in a dark bottle, (light is olive oil’s kryptonite), and kept in a cool, dark spot, it can keep for as long as 9 months. But it is at it’s best in the first three months. The flavors and healthful polyphenols begin to slowly diminish after that.
All of this leads to the idea that a wonderful US grown and made olive oil will likely get to your bread or salad in a fresher, more flavorful (and healthier) state than a bottle from overseas.
I won’t bore you with the details of how it came to be that we learned about California Olive Ranch oil. (Well, I will tell you just this little tidbit: the California Olive Ranch folks had the booth across from our Anolon booth at the New York Food and Wine Festival when Ebo, who was serving upwards of 3,000 burgers a day, burned his hand. The California folks happened to have an extra 3-gallon container of ice cream, which they offered up as a good place for Ebo to sink and soothe his throbbing hand. We take this as indisputable proof that ice cream is medicinal.)
We tasted their oils and were B L O W N A W A Y. Then we learned that some of them are available in supermarkets– at a price point that makes them truly affordable for every day cooking.
Do I sound like an ad for the company? Maybe so– we fell in love with their oils. (And it didn’t hurt that the company is run by really great people.) They started sending us oil for our everyday use, with the hope that as “taste influencers and leaders” we might spread the word. For the record, free samples have never been able to buy our affection– but great flavor sure does.
Over the next couple of years, California Olive Ranch continued to send us oil– but we used far more than they supplied. And when we ran out of our free samples, we went to our local Shoprite and bought more. We used it to test recipes for magazines, for our book, and for our nightly salads. We were in a deeply committed relationship.
This past fall they invited us to experience their harvest and learn more about their unique processing. They flew us out to Sacramento, put us up in a cool hotel, and brought us out to their groves and plants.
There are many smaller California producers we also love. We don’t use just one kind of olive oil– we are a little slutty about it, and have quite a lovely collection of conquests. More and more these days, they are from California, but we do still have flings with Greek, Lebanese and Italians.
Whatever oil we’re using, we don’t just keep it in it’s pretty bottle. We use it with abandon as soon as we get it, when it is at it’s very best.
Here’s how California Olive Ranch produces their oils.*
It all starts with olives, of course.
When the olives are ripe and ready, they are not edible. They are bitter , incredibly peppery, and entirely unpleasant to eat. They need to be cured or pressed into oil. This is what the fruit of a ripe olive looks like:
The California Olive Ranch trees are only allowed to grow to the height that will fit under their specially designed tractors. Their big yellow tractors are every little boy’s fantasy about all the cool moving parts a truck could have. They ride, sort of spread eagle, over the trees. It’s almost as if the trees are in the womb of these big trucks, readying the fruit to grow up into olive oil.
For a sense of scale, remember that the driver is sitting over the tops of the trees. This is one tall tractor.
Here’s (one of) the coolest parts of the trucks: the “womb” where the olives are gently rocked off the branches.
The truck drives down and over a row of olive trees, shaking all the olives loose and catching them, then sending them through a long arm to a second truck riding one row over. When that truck is full, it heads over to the plant where the olives get sorted.
Remember I mentioned I got to ride on the tractor? It gave me a great perspective on the process of harvesting and the groves. Plus, it’s just really fun riding way up high in a giant truck.
Here is the harvest as seen from above the trees.
When that second truck is full, the olives are weighed, measured and sorted at the plant (which is located right at the edge of the groves).
And then the process of making the oil begins.
The olives are mashed into a thick sludge-y paste, then crushed to extract the oil. (How gorgeous is that color?!)
…and, if deemed worthy, eventually bottled and shipped all around the US.
And it all started here on the groves…
* The company makes a number of oils. Their “everyday Extra Virgin” is just what it sounds like. When it is available (for a very short time) we try to get the unrefined Limited Reserve or fruity Arbequina.