When we sat down to eat, we were greeted with bright green olive oil poured onto plates for dipping the artisanal breads that awaited us in baskets.
Last September, when I was in California, I enjoyed a picnic in the shade of some enormous old olive trees. The tables were covered with Provençal fabrics, and when we sat down to eat, we were greeted with bright green olive oil poured onto plates for dipping the artisanal breads that awaited us in baskets. For just an instant, I was transported to some imaginary village in the south of France or northern Italy, but when I tasted the oil, I realized I was somewhere better than that, I was home on the West Coast of my own country.
This oil was like no other, so green that it fairly sparkled and so bright tasting that I wanted to eat it like soup, with a spoon.
I was attending a conference hosted by the Culinary Institute of America, and the picnic was at Wolfskill Experimental Orchards, a 70-acre parcel that serves as a horticultural research center. Maintained as a joint venture between the University of California, Davis and the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System, it’s home to thousands of varieties of food-bearing trees and vines. The oil came from California Olive Ranch, one of several sponsors of the event.
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And while I had tasted California olive oil before — most of it really exceptional stuff — I thought, like most American chefs, that domestic olive oil, if I could find it, would be too expensive to use.
Olive trees thrive in dry areas where the soil is relatively poor, so olive orchards in Europe are typically found where nothing else will grow, and the land is cheap. California, with its rich soil and history of elaborate irrigation projects, is practically void of areas like that. The relatively high costs of real estate and labor usually make California olive oil much more expensive than Spanish and Italian imports. (About a dollar an ounce is not uncommon.)
Growing olives in California is nothing new. In “The Olive in California: History of an Immigrant Tree,” Judith M. Taylor writes that olives were planted in the New World within five years after Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492.
The first olive groves in the Caribbean and Mexico didn’t really take hold. Then, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, olives were planted at mission orchards in what would eventually become California. Those olive trees thrived, and some are still around
“Olive trees are now found over much of California, in large and small stands of many origins.” Nevertheless, explains Taylor, except for a few decades in the 20th century when war in Europe made it nigh impossible to get oil from there, the vast majority of olive oil in America has been imported from Europe. Before the 20th century, most Americans didn’t use olive oil for cooking. Instead, olives in the American diet were mostly cocktail snacks.
“Oil was the original raison d’être for the olive industry in California,” writes Taylor, “but it rapidly shrank into a small niche. Once reliable methods of preserving the olives in cans were developed, the growers found more money from canning olives and changed almost all their trees to varieties more amenable to table use.” In the 19th and 20th centuries, olive and citrus industries grew up side by side, and while the demand for olives and olive oil fluctuated according to political conditions in Europe, the market for citrus remained consistent, so farmers saw citrus as a more reliable source of income. Eventually, high real-estate values in Southern California forced many olive growers to quit growing olives altogether.
But some growers did hang on, and in recent years a spate of new producers has emerged. On a web site called olivesource.com, some 423 companies in California list olive oil for sale. Most are very small producers. What makes California Olive Ranch unique, aside from its larger size, is how the olives are grown and harvested. With 1.4 million trees on 2,000 acres, the ranch employs “vinery-style practices,” the same planting techniques that some Washington apple growers now use, training the trees on trellises to maximize production and streamline the harvest.
The company boasts that it can move olives from trees to crush in 90 minutes, and that probably accounts for the bright color and taste. (It ranked first in a couple of casual side-by-side taste tests I did with students and friends.) And whenever I bring it out, I am transported back to that afternoon at Wolfskill orchards where the light found its way through the fluttering leaves of the olive trees overhead. Then I’m reminded that, while France and Italy are grand, there is no place like home.
Greg Atkinson is an instructor at the Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Recipe: Olive Oil Gelato
Makes about 6 cups
Holly Smith of Café Juanita in Kirkland developed this recipe for gelato using California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil. She recommends using organic eggs, milk, sugar and cream, which she uses at her restaurant.
1 ½ cups milk
6 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
A pinch of salt
3 cups whipping cream, chilled
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
1. Warm the milk in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until the milk is steaming. While the milk is warming, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and salt.
2. Stream about a third of the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture, then transfer the mixture back into the pan with the remaining milk and cook, stirring gently with a heatproof silicone spatula until the mixture is slightly thickened or until an instant-read thermometer registers 170 degrees.
3. Chill the custard in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight, then stir in the chilled cream and freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker.
4. When the gelato is frozen to the consistency of soft-serve ice cream, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Transfer the mixture to an airtight container and freeze until set.
— Holly Smith