Olives flavor Sonoma’s story
SONOMA, Calif. - The olive tree was first introduced to California by Spanish priests of the Franciscan, Dominican, and Jesuit orders who founded missions in the New World. By the mid-18th century, there were 20 missions dotting Baja California, most with orchards and gardens that featured the Mediterranean trees most familiar to their inhabitants: olives, pears, pomegranates, and figs.
As the padres headed north to establish missions in Alta California - what we know today as the state of California - they continued to plant olive groves. They pressed olives into oil for cooking and lamplight, and for medicinal, machinery, and ceremonial use. The Mission olive varietal is unique to these missions and is now considered a fruit of the Americas, since it is no longer found in Europe.
Every year, on the first Saturday of December, the immigrant story of the California olive is celebrated at the Sonoma town mission by the latter-day pioneers of the olive oil industry in California. The state now produces 99 percent of the olives in the United States, the top four varietals of which are the Mission, Manzanillo, Sevillano, and Ascolano olives. Though it still supplies less than 1 percent of American consumption, California’s olive oil production is booming - it will top a million gallons for the first time this year, surpassing France’s production volume. The olive is considered to be the “second crop’’ to grapes in Sonoma County, which has the most olive growers per capita of any county in the state.
One of these latter-day pioneers is Deborah Rogers, who manages The Olive Press, established with Ed Stolman in 1995 as Sonoma County’s first olive mill. “For me, the kickoff day in December - the blessing of the olives - is my favorite time of the season,’’ she said. “We lay out the olives for the priest, and there’s mariachi music to celebrate the harvest. It’s very local and intimate, and it makes me cry every single year.’’
The blessing of the olives kicks off the Sonoma Valley Olive Festival, a three-month celebration around the olive season of harvesting, pressing, and bottling. Now in its eighth year, the festival includes tastings, community press events, curing workshops, and olive-themed dinners by wine country chefs.
Rogers, an expert on olive oil and a certified “master taster’’ for the University of California, Davis research panel, has been running The Olive Press for the last decade. The Olive Press has two tasting rooms - one at the Jacuzzi Family Winery in Sonoma and another at Napa’s Oxbow Public Market. At the Sonoma location, the tasting room has a view of the company’s state-of-the-art milling operations. This equipment is imported from an Italian company, Pieralisi, as is the circular stone press that sits outside the entrance, a reminder of the way things were done in the old days.
On the day after Thanksgiving, the tasting bar was packed with people sampling extra-virgin olive oils, from pure Arbequina and Sevillano oils to citrus oils made with Mission olives crushed with blood orange and clementine. The pressing facility usually operates at a busy pace five to six days a week during the season. Guests can schedule guided tours by appointment or just drop in (to make sure you don’t miss out, call ahead to find out what the machines are pressing that day).
Visitors can watch the age-old process of olives being turned into oil, from the weighing and sorting process through to water baths, crushing, decanting, spinning, and purification. There are different grades of oil, with extra-virgin being the highest quality. Extra-virgin olive oil is made with the first cold press of the olives, and uses no heat or chemicals - it’s essentially a raw product, with a low acidity and delicate flavor, and is best used at the table for dressing and dipping. Unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t get better with age: Olives for extra-virgin oil must be picked and pressed within 12 to 24 hours, otherwise the fruit starts to ferment. (Lower-grade oils are refined and filtered to be essentially odorless and flavorless, and are best used for cooking.)
I was mesmerized by the oils’ vivid range of hues, from electric algae-green to golden yellow. “The color of the oil depends on the varietal and the timing in the harvest season,’’ Rogers said. The earlier in the season the olives are picked, the greener the color, and the more piquant and peppery the oil; as the season progresses, late-harvest olives produce an oil mellower in color, with milder, smoother flavors.
The Olive Press works with 12 to 15 varietals on a regular basis. Each season, the company typically offers eight oils of its own label made from single varietals, plus special blends and infusions with herbs and citrus.
Silvery olive trees dot the landscape in California, and The Olive Press is unique in that it works as a custom crush facility, working not just with commercial producers and growers with small harvests, but also with locals who want to make their own olive oil from small batches of backyard olives. The company hosts regular community press events, during which residents can bring in their olives to be pressed; they pick up their bottled olive oil the following week.
The Olive Press isn’t the only place to observe culinary operations during olive season in the Sonoma Valley. In the town of Glen Ellen, the B.R. Cohn Winery and Olive Oil Company produces its own estate extra-virgin olive oil, made from Picholine olive trees imported from France and planted in the 1870s. Guests can sample wines, olive oils, and vinegars in the tasting room.
Both B.R. Cohn and The Olive Press will host olive-curing workshops in January and February with Don Landis, an expert on home-cured olives. Landis’s olive workshops focus on the history of the olive in California and curing olives at home using traditional Greek methods.
“For a lot of people, they’ve had family recipes handed down for years; others might tell me, ‘My neighbor’s olives have been dropping in my driveway for years and I’d love to do something with them,’ ’’ Landis said. “So I bring all my little tubs and containers to show them all the different slow-food techniques I’ve learned over the years to cure and debitter the fruit, to make your own table olives.’’
Local businesses join in the fun during olive season. In Sonoma’s town square, the Girl and the Fig restaurant will offer complimentary plates of cheese and house-cured olives through February, while MacArthur Place Inn & Spa will host a “Martini Madness’’ event on Friday, where local Sonoma Valley bartenders will compete to create the best new olive-based martini. And should you want to try an organic olive-oil massage, Glen Ellen’s Magical Massage is offering special hour-long treatments for $75 in its 22-foot wine barrel spa.
In the spirit of going back to the olive’s roots in California, the Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration & Education Project will hold olive tastings and sell heritage Mission olive trees at the Sonoma Friday farmers’ market and other locations in Sonoma Valley. Visitors can purchase cuttings and plant their own trees.
Not much has changed in the basic process of making olive oil since the early days, says Deborah Rogers. “You can take a bitter olive off the tree, press it, crush it, add nothing, and out the other end comes this bright, delicious product,’’ she said. “It’s a beautiful thing.’’
Bonnie Tsui can be reached at www.bonnietsui.com.