Friday, December 01, 2006

Side view of the olive cart

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Missing ingredient

I almost forgot, before we can start this tour of the olive mill, I need some olives. Catalino is bringing about 2 tons from the harvesting that's occurred that morning. Over the course of the the harvest this year he'll bring in around 70 tons of olives. That's a smaller crop than last year, when nearly 84 tons of olives were harvested. This year, there was a storm in the spring, not a freak event but with really bad winds. Those high winds stripped a whole lot of flower buds off of the olive trees. It's estimated that there could be a 35% lower yield in the California olive crop because of that storm. Posted by Picasa

Conveyor belts and vacuums

This is where it all starts, those hobby horses are usually on the ground, keeping the olives poured in to the grating from bouncing out during the pouring. This is basically just a funnel that lets the olives fall onto a conveyor belt. That's the belt behind it, leading up to what is basically a blue vacuum cleaner. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The cast of characters at Willow Creek

These are the people who live and/or work at Willow Creek Olive Ranch, whose pictures and names may be interspersed throughout this part of the blog.

- the woman who invited me to Pasolivo for the last weekend of the harvest. She and her husband and mother-in-law own Willow Creek Olive Ranch. I used to think they ran it, but then I was introduced to

- the ranch foreman, who has worked for the family for twenty years and whose extended family make up nearly a third of the pickers. He knows the age of each tree and quite possibly every blade of grass. Where his eyes land, the ranch perks up to attention. I assume he started his tenure at the ranch working for

- the matriarch of this land. She is President of the California Olive Oil Council and probably responsible for the care and attention being shown overall to U.S. olive oils. I would love an hour of her time, but I'd have to put a lot of thought into preparing for that hour of conversation, more thought than I can properly give to it without experiencing the harvest this weekend. She lives in the empty house I referred to in a previous post, and her son is

- Joeli's husband, a man who became so used to and amused by my questions and enthusiasm that he would come to me carrying things he thought I would get a food geek kick out of (like olive fly eaten olives or chunks of dried pomace). During the harvest, he eats, sleeps, and spends most every other moment in the mill with

- the other half of my breathing reference book on crushing the gold out of an olive. An electrician when not milling olives, he or Josh would be awake in the wee, wee hours making certain that every olive picked that day went through. What struck me most about both of these guys was the casual grace shown to every person walking through a tour of the mill from the tasting room. And this is their second job.

The building which houses the mill also has a retail shop attached, the tasting room (when your neighbors are wineries, you better have a tasting room). That half includes the principal sales people:

- Joeli's right hand, who also owns a business creating beautiful stationery

- A student studying environmental planning whose smile alone could sell a bottle of oil

- Semi-retired, with an appreciation of great foods, knowledge of the county and its residents, and a well-honed grace

- A food science student whom I could picture living on the sales floor at Zingerman's and loving every minute

Another useful perspective

A last wide look at the grounds of Willow Creek before we start looking at the olives. Posted by Picasa

Over the hill part 3

This is the left side of the olive grove over the hill. In total, Willow Creek has 8500-9000 trees over about 45 acres. Posted by Picasa

Over the hill part 2

This is the middle of the olive grove over the hill. Posted by Picasa

Over the hill part 1

This is the view of the right side of the olive grove on the other side of the hill. Posted by Picasa

Ooops, a little delay

Sorry I got distracted, but I just found out (5:50pm 12/5/06) that my wife is pregnant. More pictures and text will follow once my wife and I do all the requisite hoorays and yahoos.

One side of the hill

On the far left, behind this grove of olive trees, are the buildings shown below. This is one side of the hill. Posted by Picasa

The barn

This barn is just to the right of the picture below, as seen from the porch of the guesthouse I was staying in. Besides Karen's house on the hill, that's all there is. Posted by Picasa

Tasting Room & Joeli's house

That's Joeli's house on the right, and where the cars usually park for the retail tasting experience in the middle. Posted by Picasa

Tasting Room/Olive Press

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Quick tour of the buildings 1

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I've arrived at the olive ranch. The ranch is on a road called Vineyard Drive, which indicates the nature of Joeli's neighbors. This is about 20 miles in from the Central Coast of California, with countryside that resembles (so I'm told) Tuscany's. That would make perfect sense since Pasolivo's oil rivals some of the best oils I've tasted from Tuscany.

Vineyard Drive winds. Twists and turns hold hills that hide two-thirds of the grapevines that predominate; but even with only a third of them showing, vines, vines, and more vines hide the half a dozen deer that stare at me as I search for Willow Creek Olive Ranch. After turning onto the ranch, driving over a concrete bridge, driving up a long, long road that hugs a dropoff, driving back down that road because I encountered an empty house, and finally seeing what I take to be the right house, I walk up it not sure what to expect, hearing the loud whir of machinery coming from the brightly lit tasting room house only dozens of yards away.

After receiving a big hug from Joeli, I walk in and find Robbie and Sarah, friends of the family from Chicago, Matt, a worldwide award-winning brewer for Firestone Walker brewery, James, a wine maker, and eventually Josh, Joeli's husband, and Rich, jokingly referred to as Joeli's other husband during the harvest season (the two people who run the olive mill's machinery). The coffee table has cheese and snacks; the dress and language is super casual, inviting camaraderie; 2-4 bottles of wine are open (yum) as well as a scotch whisky Robbie bought on a trip to London that was super yum. Some butternut squash soup made an appearance and was consumed quickly with murmurs of "This is so good" after Joeli drizzled a meandering creek of Pasolivo Lime olive oil over the top. The night was off to a great start.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Olive Oil 101.02

This map of the historical expansion of the olive tree I found useful. It's the third map on this page. My love of the map does not mean, however, that I think you need to read that particular page about the history: I'll find better pages about the history of olive oil for you.

I also find the photographs (and most of the points) in this powerpoint presentation (link to a .pdf file) a reference that I check back on upon occasion.

Looking at the map

I'm just contemplating my trip and exploring the map of the area. Here's another good map of where I'll be.

Olive Oil 101.01

I work for a pretty famous deli. I'm one part of a really amazing team which sells fully flavored, artisanal or traditionally made dry goods (you know, things in jars, bottles, cans, that sort of food). What sets the food I work with apart from the food found in any other store is best understood through an exercise: walk into a convenience store (the perfect example would be those pimples that pop up along highways with a free-for-any-gas-paying-customer restroom and a plexiglass cage for the employee to sit within); open your eyes to the food being sold there; pick up cans, look at the ingredients, think about how they're made; think about how the food is put into the package; imagine all the people who were involved in making this food and what their emotional connection to the food was; think about how much those people were respected and payed and why this can/bottle/jar/box costs as little as it does; reminisce about the last time you tasted this item and all the sensory memories you can recapture just by remembering its taste. Now, think of any item that could be sold in a convenience store that would capture similar feelings as those items.

We don't sell any of those things. The only intersection between the products sold in a convenience store and the products sold by this team of which I'm a part is that ubiquitous soft drink Copsi (or is it Pepske). Yes, they're expensive, if expensive means "not of poor quality" or "responsive to exacting standards."

I don't mean this as a slight against the other foods sold in the marketplace, that's just not what we do. Given that reality of my employer, however, there is a lot of food education that takes place and has to be maintained in the course of one's employment. One of the ideas bandied about is introducing a few more food classes, like Olive Oil 101, Mustards 101, Cheese 101, etc. I happen to be someone who really likes teaching and sharing information and who is passionate about food (hell, downright giddy sometimes), so I've wormed my way into being a part of this discussion.

I've been hesitant about the class, though, because on one level it's seemed shortsighted. If I took the time to really document my education about a particular food (which I'm more than willing to do since much of this learning is done on this series of tubes we call the internet), then I could make an Olive Oil 101 class available for anyone who wanted to read it by using a blog. It could be required reading for people who want to work for my employer and sell olive oil, but it could also just be available for anyone who happens to wind their way there. And to be perfectly honest, rather than teach the same Olive Oil 101 class 50 times, I'd like to create 50 different online tutorials about good food.

Wouldn't an online tutorial about Olive Oil be great! I get to set myself up as resident expert (since it is my blog), the comment sections can be used to clarify fine points for readers sometimes or even blossom into a new blog chapter of the tutorial, I can get opinions from other olive oil experts I work with (finer than I am I must say), and I might eventually post videos of olive oil tastings that we feature at the deli. mmmm, warm and fuzzy just thinking about it...

So that's my goal, my vision. Anything olive oil tutorial focused will be labeled "Olive Oil 101.x"

Eat fearlessly!