When I received aninvitation to attend a harvest celebration at a California Olive Ranch farm in Northern California, I was excited to see what it would be like and to meet the people behind their products. Perhaps the most intriguing thing for me about going to any production facility is learning some history and esoteric knowledge from a craftsperson who has worked in the industry for years. After all, they have been doing it for so long and have seen the highs and lows.
There are roughly 800-900 olive oils in the U.S market. Olive oil has always been an essential part of Italian cuisine and the Mediterranean diet. Most people buy olive oil for its health benefits and flavor, yet not all olive oils are healthy. High-quality olive oil is a product produced from a stone fruit.
Therefore, it is best consumed fresh.
Color, Scent, Flavor
Organoleptic properties (color, scent, and flavor) define each oil, and they help establish the ratings given by expert tasters. These ratings are based on their experiences with the varieties of olives and seasonal harvests over the years. For instance, to be considered extra virgin olive oil, the product has to meet agreed-upon standards; it must be made without industrial refining and use no chemical solvents. Sensory and chemical analyses have been created to help prevent the oil alteration on the international market, and therefore awareness around quality and purity has grown.
In order to produce the very best extra virgin olive oil, one needs to consider what the enemies of quality are: heat, light and time. Heat will degrade the oil and cause it to go rancid. Light can also have that effect on oil, so companies often use green glass bottles that do not allow as much light in. Consider a cool dry place to store your oil.
Time is a crucial factor too. Think about a piece of fresh fruit, like a peach. How long will it stay good? It breaks down during the ripening, and so do olives. They start bright green, and then slowly change through different stages of yellow, before turning black.
When cooking with it, lightly sautéing some veggies with olive oil is okay, but try not to overheat. Heat is one of the enemies of good fresh olive oil.
Small young trees
California Olive Ranch (COR) uses small young olive trees to produce its extra virgin olive oils, unlike their European counterparts that normally harvest from bigger and older trees. They start with fresh small green olives that are high in antioxidants and contain the phenolic compound oleocanthal, which in recent studies has been shown to be a strong anti-cancer agent of change. (Two tablespoons per day required.)
As part of their commitment to making the best olive oil, COR does not harvest olives when it is more than 80ºF. They also do not harvest when it rains because too much water for the olives is not good for the oil (lower phenol count). The harvest season lasts about 55 days, often worked without a day to break. The time-sensitive olives must be milled in short order and made into extra virgin olive oil that can be preserved as long as possible. The trucks that haul the olives from the farms are timed and given 45 minutes to bring the harvest to the COR milling operation.
Once there, the olives are put on conveyor belts. Compressed air is used to clean them off before they go to be pressed. Their temperature will never reach over 80ºF during the pressing, so extra virgin olive oil is essentially a raw product. The pits are left in and act to cut the flesh of the olives to release the oil. The flesh contains water too, which is removed later along with the pit pieces using a sci-fi centrifuge. The oil is pulled from the centrifuge. It is tasted for analysis and then sent off for storage. We had a chance to sample several varieties of fresh oil. Even rejected oils are reused for other purposes.
From this moment in the process forward, the extra virgin olive oil will see no light or air until it is bottled. It is stored by olive variety in large tanks and allowed to settle for 60-90 days. The oil is bottled to order to maintain freshness. Each bottle bears a production date. The oil produced is a testament to an incredible journey. Olives and their oil have traveled with us for a very long time.