On Location: Extra Virgin?

On Location: Extra Virgin?

ripe olives on the tree

​One of the most informative and enjoyable location shoots from our first Food Over 50 series took place in Aguana, California, partway between Palm Springs and San Diego. It happens to be the home of the Olive View Ranch, the varietal test site, milling facility and tasting center for The Temecula Olive Oil Company.

There's a special feel that emanates from a grove of olive trees when they are ready to be picked. It's a sense of culinary antiquity. Oil from similar trees was collected and consumed during the Roman Empire, back in ancient Egypt, and by the Greeks where olives supposedly originated. It's fascinating that such a beautiful and calming environment represents one of the world's oldest and healthiest food sources.

Thom Curry is the founder and owner of Olive View Ranch, along with Temecula O.O.C. We couldn't have picked a more perfect, or knowledgeable host and interview subject. He has a rakish, Indiana Jones quality. Thom sits on the board of the California Olive Oil Council. He is also a member of that council's official tasting panel, which applies the quality ratings and bestows C.O.O.C. seals to 100% California olive oils. It is a rating that vies with the best in the world. California may have come late to the olive oil game, compared to Spain or Italy, but it has made up for lost centuries very, very fast!

ripe California olives on the ground

​According to the California Olive Oil Council more than 40,000 acres of olive trees are under cultivation in The Golden State, encompassing over 400 growers and more than 75 olive varieties. One recent California harvest yielded nearly 4 million gallons of certified Extra Virgin olive oil and the industry is growing.

Did you know that a vast number of imported olive oils are not totally what they claim to be? According to Thom, foreign olive oils have to meet high standards within their own countries, but if the product is shipped abroad it needn't meet any standard of purity or freshness. These foreign olive oils may be partially adulterated with less costly vegetable oils. Also, according to C.O.O.C testing statistics, over 50% of the imported grocery store olive oils are rancid before they are ever opened. This is most often due to extended international transit and warehousing.

At harvest time most olive oil producers combine mechanized labor saving devices with good old elbow grease. Most "boutique" growers manually place catch tarps under each tree. Then electric-powered vibrating rakes jostle the olives from their branches. While we were visiting Olive View Ranch we got to see their crew picking the small but high-yield Tuscan variety known as Leccino. These are gathered in the tarps, the leaves and twigs are sieved and discarded, and the fruit is boxed up to head to the mill. I embarrassed myself by doing a little token olive picking. The harvest crew watched my technique, smiled patiently, shook their heads and told me I should stick to television. Unfortunately, I fear my picking technique and camera presence are somewhat similar.

David Jackson harvesting California olives

​While the mill was being readied we sat down with Thom for what ended up being the best interview of the first series. Put him in front of a camera and he gabs more than I do! But what he had to say about olive oil was fascinating and instructive. Take, for instance, the whole razzle-dazzle behind the term Extra Virgin. What exactly is an Extra Virgin anyway? It boils down to marketing lingo. The only thing that really matters about olive oil is the quality and selection of the olives to be pressed, plus the freshness of the finished product. But a few Mad Men of the international olive oil industry came up with the term Virgin Olive Oil to set their product above the rest. When everybody started copying the Virgin reference on their own labels some other smart guy ad man brought in the word Extra to stand out. But now that's been emulated all over the place and where do we go from here? Extra Spectacular Virgin Olive Oil? A True Virginary Olive Oil?  

The crush & press process is remarkably sensory. The audible pop and grind of the olive pits surrendering to the 400-pound mill wheels converts the harvest to a vibrant purple paste. I was enthused by the process, but I was absolutely enthralled by the aroma that filled the room.

After the crushing is complete, the paste is transferred to a device that mechanically extrudes it onto round screens. These screens are vertically stacked in a press, then ever so slowly squeezed and squeezed to extract the ultra fresh, green/gold oil. It's a feast for the senses as well as for our hearts and circulatory systems. Olive oil is unquestionably one of the healthiest and best tasting of all fats. The underlying accent of vanilla, and the zip of pepper from freshly pressed olive oil is something you really must experience. That's why we featured this on-location segment at the Olive View Ranch in our Dietary Fat: The Good, The Bad & The Necessary episode. If you ask me, fresh olive oil, with or without the "Extra Virgin" marketing nonsense, is the best and most necessary fat for our 50+ diets. If you don't believe me, just ask Thom. He's over the hump too!