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Fruit of the Golden State

Why California is Americas epicenter for olives

WRITTEN BY STEPH RODRIGUEZ
PHOTOS BY DEBBIE CUNNINGHAM

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California olives are enjoyed by many, especially the familiar Lindsay and Early California brands that beckon toddlers to stick the buttery, black fruits on each of their tiny fingers before devouring them one by one. Olives also are a favored pizza topping, martini garnish, salad accent, and tabletop snack. Their oil is even more versatile, with its touted health benefits and applications as a topical treatment, and, of course, it has endless uses in the kitchen, to sauté, roast, and enhance homemade dishes.

Fruit of the gods The bulk of U.S. production when it comes to extra-virgin olive oil is found right here in California, which is home to a couple hundred dedicated olive growers. Although The Golden State handles about 90 percent of production in the country, its market share only accounts for 6 to 7 percent, meaning a majority of olive oil used in households or found in supermarkets still comes from overseas. Spain, for example, is the largest producer of olive oil, with more than 6 million acres of olive orchards, compared to California’s 50,000, according to the executive director of the University of California, Davis Olive Center, Dan Flynn.

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“[In Spain,] it would be like going to Amador County, and everywhere you looked it was just olive trees,” Flynn says. Over the last 10 years, Flynn and his small research team located on campus conducted 150 research projects and offered 50 short courses that have connected with 95 percent of all of the production of California olives. The olive center provides growers and retailers alike with information on best practices and how to produce better quality olives with greater efficiency. “Northern California really is the epicenter of olive growing in the United States,” Flynn says. “There are not that many places where you can grow olives, but in most of California you can. There’s quite a bit done in the San Joaquin Valley, too.”The olive center also produces its own extra-virgin olive oil on site but doesn’t compete with the marketplace. So blends such as Wolfskill and Gunrock, the latter named after the university’s thoroughbred mascot, only are found at UC Davis stores on campus. So what does extra-virgin olive oil mean? Flynn says it’s minimally processed fruit juice. Recall that olives are indeed categorized as fruit, much like tomatoes and avocados. “It’s the top grade, but there’s also a wide range of quality within the grade, and basically at the minimum, it means that if you had this oil that was evaluated by a trained panel of tasters, they would say the defects are equal to zero, meaning it doesn’t taste rancid ... yet. And it has more than zero fruitiness on a scale from zero to 10,” Flynn explains. He adds that when consumers visit grocery stores, they’ll see extra virgin, pure, and something called extra light. These all are marketing terms meant to mask the deficiencies in low-grade oils made oftentimes from rancid or moldy fruits. Flynn says only extra virgin is the name of an official grade. So be cautious and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

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Nurturing the minds

For Lisa Lubeley, owner of The Chefs’ Olive Mix, it’s important to foster a fun and educational environment that seeks to introduce the everyday consumer to the complexities of extra-virgin olive oil, but without the air of intimidation often found in the wine or cheese cultures. At her olive oil boutique in Old Sacramento, she wants her customers to taste and find the flavors and aromas that please their palates. “One of my big things is educating the public on what to look for when you’re out looking for oil,” Lubeley says. “There are a lot of good oils in California, and a lot of good oils out in the world. But I want to show them why the oils I carry are important.”In her spare time, Lubeley sits on the Applied Sensory Olive Oil Taste Panel at UC Davis, along with Flynn. The rotating panel, made up of 12 to 20 tasters, receives olive oils from all over the world a few times each month, which are scheduled for blind taste tests. The oils must meet chemical requirements to be certified extra virgin, then the tasting panel looks for smell and taste defects. Lubeley says she’ll taste anywhere from a dozen to 20 different oils in one sitting, but she loves it and applies that same care to the oils she carries in her stores. “It’s a science, but it’s also kind of an art to get to the end product of the olive oil, which is really cool,” Lubeley says. “I love the oils; I truly believe it is one of the best fats you could put in your body.”

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A way of life

Imagine growing up in the south of Spain amid 10,000 acres of rolling olive oil orchards just waiting to be picked, milled, and enjoyed during peak season. This narrative, from the seeds to the soil to the fruits of hard labor, describes the upbringing of Felipe Ternero, who grew up in the olive-producing business. Ternero Farms has orchards in Lincoln; Corning; and Estepa, Spain on the land that Ternero’s family tended to for generations — and still does. Although he visits his brothers a few times a year to help with the family business, he spends most of his time in Lincoln, where he and his wife, Lisa, run a rustic tasting room and share their award-winning extra-virgin and flavored olive oils from California and Spain with curious passersby who stop in while on scenic drives along the nearby wine trail. “We planted this orchard in jeans and boots on our knees digging holes,” Lisa says, gesturing to the 10-acre orchard outside the couple’s tasting room. “[Felipe’s] taught me so much.”One of the most common mistakes the Terneros find with most consumers is that they’re unaware that properly storing a good olive oil is just as important as choosing a quality one. Their advice: Never store extra-virgin olive oil near a hot stove because it simply will ruin it. Felipe’s family members in Spain are olive growers at heart, producing for well-known corporations such as Bell-Carter Foods, which is most famous for the Lindsay brand olives, as well as local companies looking to buy fruit to produce their own olive oils. So the olives you grew up eating on your fingers more than likely were sourced from Ternero Farms. “It’s in my blood. I love farming. I like working outside. I like to be my own boss. It’s a great lifestyle, and it goes up and down,” Felipe says.

A grassroots family grove

Julie Coldani fondly remembers when her daughter, Giada, slept soundly in a baby carrier at her feet as Julie and her husband, Mike, finalized the logo that would launch their award-winning extra-virgin olive oil brand, Calivirgin. That was a little more than 10 years ago — and she still uses that memory as an indicator not only of how much the Coldani Olive Ranch has grown, but also the expansion of her own family, which now includes two boys, Gino and Lorenzo. Mike, born to a five-generation farming family, mostly grew up around row crops such as tomatoes, bell peppers, and corn in Lodi. While attending California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, he ran into a familiar face from high school, Julie, who also was enrolled at the college. The serendipitous moment brought the two together hundreds of miles from the rich, agricultural land of their childhood. “It was easy to come home because we were together that last year of college,” Julie says. “It’s been great for our families, and now we have three little kids. It’s been fun to raise a family here and grow a business in the community we grew up in.”Out of the 100 acres of olive orchards the Coldanis own, 35 acres can be seen right next to the tasting room, where bushy rows of olive trees grow on trellises. This style of olive orchard is recognized as super high density, meaning more trees are tightly planted together in a hedgerow to fit more volume per acreage. The trees grown using this technique also don’t stretch very tall, which has its advantages come harvest time. With a super-high-density olive orchard, the Coldanis are able to mechanically harvest their crops using a modified grape harvester that moves over the rows, shaking the fruit into bins before it’s hauled off to the mill about a mile up the road. “In the last 10 years, the production of olive oil in the U.S. has grown tremendously. It’s mainly because of the way we grow now on a trellis,” Mike says. “It allows you to pick a lot of acreage very fast and get it into the process of oil quickly, which helps with the quality of the oil. When it was done by hand, it would take weeks to harvest this field. Now we can do it in two days.”Calivirgin extra-virgin olive oils and flavored varieties have won 86 awards in 2018 alone. The trophies, ribbons, and medals denoting accolades of years past decorate the tasting room. But the people behind this humble, family-owned business simply are happy to provide a healthy product to their community. “Every variety of olive has a different flavor profile. Much like wine, a cab or a merlot both make red wine, but they taste very different, and olives are the same way,” Julie says. “We have four different varieties here, and if you taste them side by side, they’re very different. One might taste more peppery; one might be more smooth and buttery.”The extra-virgin olive oils of Calivirgin range from mild and buttery to more robust and pungent ones that tickle the back of the throat — in a good way. But the Coldanis also offer a variety offlavored olive oils infused with fresh produce that’s milled with the olives during the production process. This is how Calivirgin packs such true herbaceous flavors, such as basil and rosemary, or the balanced heat found in its jalapeño extra-virgin olive oil, which won Best in Show at the Orange County Fair. In the winter, the Coldanis will break ground on a new tasting facility that will include a wine-tasting room featuring wines made from a mixture of their neighbors’ grapes and their own. The new building also will include large windows so customers have a front row seat to the production process, with opportunities to taste fresh olive oil in Lodi. For Julie and Mike, the years of juggling day jobs while trying to launch their dream and the late nights spent bottling inventory are all worth it because there is no better place to raise her children than around the olive orchards, where they can watch their dad work the land. “Our kids have grown up here, and they come to harvest. He’s gone for the whole month of harvest, and we come out and have dinner with him, and they come out in their Halloween costumes,” Julie says as her eyes swell with tears. “It’s just been special to see it happen, and when it’s a healthy product that you know that you’re sharing with someone ...it’s just been a fun ride.”

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Resources

Calivirgin by Coldani Olive Ranch 13950 N. Thornton Road, Lodi • 209-210-3162 Calivirgin.com Open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Mon. – Fri., 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Sat. The Chefs’ Olive Mix 131 J St., Old Sacramento • 916-706-3105 Open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Mon. – Sat., 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sun. 2600 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento • 916-974-7467 Open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Mon. – Sat., noon – 5 p.m. Sun Chefsolivemix.com Ternero Olive Oil by Ternero Farms 3552 Hwy. 193, Lincoln • 916-508-5325 Ternerooliveoil.com By appointment only UC Davis Olive Center RMI Sensory Building 392 Old Davis Road, Davis • 530-752-3176 Olivecenter.ucdavis.edu RECIPES Olive Oil and Chardonnay Pound Cake (courtesy of Julie and Mike Coldani, co-owners, Coldani Olive Ranch in Lodi. Serves 6 to 8) 3 eggs 1¼ cups sugar ⅓ cup Calivirgin Premium olive oil ⅓ cup Chardonnay (pick your favorite!) 1½ cups all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons baking powder ⅛ teaspoon kosher salt 2 cups powdered sugar Lemon, lime, and mandarin orange for zest and juice ½ teaspoon vanilla extract Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan. Beat eggs with mixer. Gradually add sugar and beat until batter is light and creamy. Slowly add olive oil and Chardonnay. Stir to combine. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt. Fold flour mixture into egg mixture. Spoon batter into buttered cake pan. Bake 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cake cool 10 minutes, then remove from pan. Let cake cool a little before pouring glaze on top. Cake should be warm but not hot. To make glaze, combine powdered sugar, zest from ½ of each of the three citrus fruits, and vanilla in small bowl. Add more juice from citrus fruits until you achieve the right glaze consistency, which is slightly thick but still runny. Thai Noodle Salad (courtesy of Julie and Mike Coldani, co-owners, Coldani Olive Ranch in Lodi. Serves 4) 1 package angel hair pasta ½ cup Calivirgin Jalapeño Garlic olive oil ¼ cup sesame oil ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional) ¼ cup honey ¼ cup soy sauce 1 teaspoon salt ½ cup dry-roasted peanuts ¼ cup cilantro, chopped 3 green onions, chopped 2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds Cook angel hair pasta according to package and set aside in large bowl. In small saucepan, combine all oils with red pepper flakes (if using) and heat on medium-low for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add honey, soy sauce, and salt. Pour oil mixture over cooked noodles, then add green onions, sesame seeds, and peanuts. Toss until noodles are evenly coated. Serve warm or refrigerate and serve cold. Keeps well for about a week, so this dish can be made ahead of time or saved for leftovers. Suggestions: Add more peanuts or sprinkle on top when serving. Also, this dish has a very mild heat, so it could use more red pepper flakes if you like some spice.

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