By Emily Shartin, Epicurator
When I moved to California from Massachusetts, I knew one of the main things I wanted to learn about was olive oil. We had access to great European oils in Boston but, as you might surmise, the New England climate is not exactly conducive to growing olives, which thrive in a more Mediterranean environment. I am a passionate supporter of artisanal foods and the people and traditions that surround them, and have happily been able to fashion a career out of learning about everything from cheese to chocolate to coffee. In California, I wanted to add olive oil to that list, and to be able to meet growers and see olive oil production first-hand.
I was lucky enough to get a job with the St. Helena Olive Oil Co. We work directly with olive growers across Napa Valley (and beyond) to produce olive oil, and sell those oils at our retail shop in St. Helena. And so it was that I found myself spending a string of December mornings at olive orchards, watching crews diligently go about the painstaking work of stripping olives from their branches. Some used mechanical rakes to shake olives from the tree, some use sticks to beat the branches until fruit rained down, others (including me for a short time) went in with just their hands. The olives were collected in pails, or fell into tarps placed below the trees, which were then collected and emptied into bins.
Problematic weather early in the growing season made for a painfully small harvest across northern California this year, so many workers took extra care to make sure no piece of fruit went uncollected. This year we worked with a mobile olive mill — essentially a trailer that came right to the orchard and produced oil onsite! The quality of extra virgin olive oil depends heavily on how soon the olives are milled after they are harvested — having a mill at the orchard, rather than having to truck the olives to an offsite mill, allowed us to produce some of the freshest oil possible.
The entire milling process takes just over an hour. The olives are washed and then chopped up into a paste (pits and all) that resembles tapenade. The mash goes into an apparatus called a malaxer, which helps the oil in the tapenade to begin pooling. Once the miller is satisfied that the oil pools are large enough, the mixture goes into a centrifuge, which separates the solids and water from the fresh oil.
The harvest is now over, and many growers are turning their sights toward pruning their trees and getting ready for this year’s growing season, a cycle that I’m also eager to see and learn more about as I continue my California olive oil education. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about olives, there are some nifty events happening in February as part of the Sonoma Olive Festival, including a gathering of home olive curers at Jacuzzi Winery. (I’ve been to one of Don Landis’ curing workshops before and it was both informative and fun.) For other suggestions on where to taste olive oil in wine country, check out this previous blog post.