Sunday, October 30, 2011

California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil

California is producing some very good extra virgin olive oil, some using old European varieties of olives, harvested the old fashioned way, and--some high quality extra virgin olive oil harvested in a very modern way, for a fraction of the price. So how is possible to get high quality extra virgin olive oil at a low price? Last week I visited California Olive Ranch, the largest California olive oil producer, and learned just how they do it.

It all comes down to freshness and quantity. California Olive Ranch plants three varieties, arbequina, arbosana from Spain and koroneiki from Greece. Their olive orchards look nothing like what you may have seen in Europe. The olive trees are pruned into a hedge shape that is harvested mechanically, using a harvester specially developed for shaking the trees to get the olives off without damaging them. Less damage means better quality oil.

Here are some numbers for California Olive Ranch:

Their olive trees grow 6-8 feet high

Trees are planted 5 feet apart

There is 13 feet between each row

There are about 675 trees planted per acre

Each tree yields 7-12 pounds of olives

Only 20% of the olive is oil, 55% is water

12 harvesters run 24 hours a day during harvest season

5,000 acres are owned by the company

5,000 acres are managed by 67 farmers who have long term leases

Each truck holds 66,000 pounds of olives

Each truck is unloaded in 35 minutes

Some more facts:

The tree trimmings are mulched

The ground pits and olives, called pomace, is fed to cattle

California Olive Ranch is using bird boxes and buffer zones to minimize the use of pesticides and tests each batch of olives, and has test plots for organic olives

If you ever get a chance to ride a harvester and see the olives jiggle off the trees I highly recommend it! That I got to share the experience with blogging friends Chef John from Food Wishes, Chrystal Baker from The Duo Dishes, Aleta Watson from The Skillet Chronicles, and Jane Bonacci from The Heritage Cook made it all the more sweet!

Speaking of sweet, all exra virgin olive oil should be a balance of fruity, bitter and pungent. The best way to find your favorite, is to taste them...however...California Olive Ranch uses descriptors like intense and bold and mild to help you find one to your taste.

* If you want the freshest olive oil, known as "olio nuovo in Italy, sign up to buy California Olive Ranch's Limited Reserve.

* If you like a buttery mild oil without too much bite, look for their basic extra virgin olive oil

* If you like a fruitier variety, try the Arbequina

* The Arbosana is most complex

* The Miller's blend is bold and balanced (and a favorite of some bloggers, food writers and chefs too.)

My thanks to California Olive Ranch for inviting me up to visit during harvest and letting me sample their fresh oils!