Used for thousands of years along the Mediterranean as a fuel and for cleaning, cooking, and cosmetics, olive oil is relatively new to the United States.
While Spanish missionaries first brought olive trees to the New World in the 18th century to cultivate their own olive oil, it didn’t make a splash here until the early 1990s. Around that time, consumers discovered that olive oil added flavor to gourmet foods and studies began showing it had health benefits.
Since then, olive oil’s popularity has exploded. It’s estimated that Americans use 80 million gallons of olive oil each year, second only to the European Union. And today California is a distinguished producer of olive oils considered to be as high quality as imported oils. But it wasn’t always that way.
In 1998, two Spanish families bought olive orchards near Chico and named their business California Olive Ranch. Spain is one of the world’s top producers of olive oil, but the families chose California for their new venture. They recognized that the state’s climate is ideal for growing other Mediterranean crops like grapes, almonds, and pomegranates.
At the time, most of the olive oil sold in the U.S. was imported from Europe and customers typically made their purchases based on price only. But California Olive Ranch’s owners saw an opportunity to create a locally-grown olive oil brand that could exceed the quality of Europe’s – much like California wine producers did in the 1970s.
Improving Olive Oil with Technology
California has a reputation for leading the way in technology. In Europe, olives are grown and harvested much like they have been for hundreds of years – they aren’t irrigated and each crop is handpicked. At California Olive Ranch, they’ve applied the latest technology to growing olives by using state of the art irrigation, innovative orchard design and mechanical harvesters that quickly and carefully pick the olives.
With California’s current drought conditions, farmers face challenges getting the water they need to grow food. Fortunately, olives are one of the most drought-tolerant crops and they require little fertilizer. California Olive Ranch relies on technology like solar-powered moisture sensors to monitor irrigation. A few years ago the sensors showed them the trees were getting more water than they needed, so they reduced their water usage.
Mechanical harvesters play an important role in the quality of California olives. Not only do they keep labor costs down, they get freshly picked olives from the field to the mill much faster. The result? Fresher, more flavorful olive oil.
“The quality of olives goes down as soon as they’re picked, so it’s important to harvest olives quickly and get them to the mill for processing as soon as possible,” says Mayo Ryan, who oversees California Olive Ranch’s farms. “Heat is the enemy of fresh olives. We harvest them starting at night to keep them cool. As soon as the temperature rises to 75°F during the day, we stop picking.”
From Tree to Table
After the olives leave the field, they’re taken to a mill in nearby Artois, California, where their quality is tested. The olives are sent through a sorter where debris is removed, then a hammermill creates an oatmeal-like pulp out of the olives, pits, and skins. Next, the olive pulp goes into a machine called a malaxer, which mixes, blends and breaks down the pulp further. The mixture goes into a decanter, which uses centrifugal force to separate the pulp from the water and oil. At this point, the pulp is called pomace, which the ranch is now composting and using to fertilize the olive trees – a process called “closed loop agriculture.”
The remaining oil and water are separated and the oil is put into cooled holding tanks where the oxygen is removed. Two professional olive oil tasters must agree that the oil has the right flavor profile before it can be bottled. The harvest date is then stamped on the bottle labels so you know how fresh your oil is.
California Olive Ranch produces only extra virgin olive oil, which is the result of a single pressing of high-quality olives without the use of heat or chemicals. It’s aromatic, strongly-flavored and usually a deeper color than other grades. Because extra virgin olive oil is lightly processed, it also contains the most phytochemicals.
Like Fine Wines
California Olive Ranch offers several different flavor profiles in their olive oils. Their Everyday Fresh has a smooth, floral aroma with hints of green apple, making it a versatile choice for baking, sautéing and roasting. Another great choice for everyday cooking is their Mild & Buttery, which features late-season Arbequina olives. The longer olives ripen on the tree, the more buttery the flavor.
For a bolder profile, their Rich & Robust is a full-bodied, peppery olive oil that’s perfect for drizzling over steak and spicy foods. Looking for something different? Try their Arbequina, which boasts fresh flavors of tropical fruit, or nutty-tasting Arbosana, a great companion for bruschetta, soups or even chocolate! Mayo Ryan of California Olive Ranch says one of his favorite uses is “drizzling Arbequina over ice cream.”
The Goodness of Olive Oil
What’s so great about olive oil? It contains phytochemicals called polyphenols that give the oil its distinct color, flavor, and scent. But more importantly, polyphenols may promote heart health and longevity when consumed regularly.(1)
Researchers first took notice of the possible benefits of olive oil when they saw that Mediterranean residents often had significantly lower instances of disease than the U.S. population.(2) There are other factors that can affect the health and wellness of Mediterraneans, including their diet, exercise and stress levels, but olive oil appears to play a beneficial role.
Of course, olive oil is mostly fat, making it calorie dense: One small tablespoon provides 120 calories.(3) So while olive oil contains beneficial fats and phytochemicals, consider your portion size and keep in mind that a little bit can go a long way.
With so many good things going for it, olive oil is a natural choice for adding flavor and nutrients to your cooking. From main dishes to desserts, the possibilities are endless.
(1) Valuable Nutrients and Functional Bioactives in Different Parts of Olive
(2) Definitions and potential health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
(3) How many calories are in one gram of fat, carbohydrate, or protein?