As much as I miss the green glory of the Puget Sound, it is mornings like the one I had on December 5th, 2009 when I am reminded that Sonoma County isn’t such a bad alternative. On that particular morning I woke to find that the hills were a little less brown, the sky a clear and perfect blue and my mind filled with the knowledge that today I would learn how olives are transformed into the most important staple of my kitchen.
A couple of weeks earlier, I was notified by Twitter that I was being followed by @TheOlivePress1. It just so happened that I was trying to find an olive oil maker to let me in on a pressing, so I sent @TheOlivePress1 a message. Within an hour or so I was chatting with the lovely Deborah Rogers, co-founder of The Olive Press, planning a visit to observe the annual community olive pressing in a couple of weeks time.
The roads between Petaluma and Sonoma wind through hills the color of wet straw dotted with cattle and sheep. Roadsides are studded with ripened pears and quince. The Olive Press is housed in a beautiful stone building that sits nestled at the base of the Sonoma Mountains. On a morning like that one, it is a beautiful sight.
My photographer (aka Phil) and I arrived just after the first batch was weighed and headed towards the press. Normally The Olive Press processes their own oil, but today was a little different. Today was a community pressing, where anyone with an olive tree and good fruit can bring their olives in to be pressed. It is the oldest program of its kind in the United States. Each small grower brings in their fruit, has it weighed, pays to have it processed and in a week or so they return to The Olive Press to pick up their very own olive oil. Some of the people I spoke with kept the oil for personal use, but many gave their oil as holiday gifts. I met one man, who gave it with his own vinegar and wine. I did my best to ingratiate myself to him, but did not end up on his holiday gift list.
I watched people carrying bins and buckets of lovingly tended fruit to be weighed and processed, silently cursing my pathetic little olive tree for not producing any fruit and envious of the bucket wielding growers. Thankfully there was too much action for me to just stand their sulking, soon I was helping unload olives, watching weigh ins and learning the particulars of what makes for a viable olive oil olive. Deborah showed me the effects of worm, frost and dehydration on an olive and taught me how they not only degrade the overall quality of the oil, but can produce some downright terrible flavors.
After weigh in, the olives are placed into a large bin that is poured into a giant hopper for cleaning and separating before the actual crush. Once they reach the crushing machine, it looks like the most luscious tapenade you’ve ever seen. Eventually, it ends up in a centrifuge where the olive is separated from the oil, resulting in the thick golden liquid we all know and love so well.
While the olives were in the final stage of their process, I headed into the shop to do an olive oil tasting. While the actual physical act of tasting olive oil is different, than say wine or coffee tasting, the structure is the same. I started out with the more delicate varietals, such as the Arbequina, the progressed on through the spectrum to the blended oils like the intense and buttery Master Blend. It was a difficult choice to make, but I went home with a bottle of the Sevillano oil and resisted the urge to buy the gorgeous olive frond sculptures . . . and the olive wood nesting bowls. I really want those bowls!
I rejoined Deborah and a grower for a little fresh out of the centrifuge tasting. The oils I had tasted inside had all provided a throat warming sensation, and they had the previous year to mellow. But this was fresh off the press and the throat warming sensation was intensified threefold. Maybe in a few months it would be more my strength.
My visit to The Olive Press was an interesting and tasty one. The oil is gorgeous and has definitely earned a permanent spot in my kitchen.
The Haitians need help. Their country has been decimated and yesterday I saw a report that the Red Cross was out of supplies in Haiti. The Coast Guard and Army are helping, but they need our support. If you are in a position to help, even a little, please click on one of the links below to donate.
Wyclef Jean’s humanitarian organization: http://www.yele.org/
The White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov/haitiearthquake_embed