The vast majority of olive oils produced in California are from Spanish varieties
By Mike Monroe
Just prior to Thanksgiving, my wife and I were anticipating our travel to Southern California for a holiday visit and family reunion. Our two sons now live down south and I decided upon some local wines, honey and olive oil to bring along in the form of a care package. Yes — olive oil. The thought dawned on me as I was driving by Frantoio Grove, like I do most days of the week, and so I decided to pull in when I noticed a flurry of activity about the place.
Most of us traveling along Monterey Road in San Martin zip right past Frantoio Grove. You cannot miss all the olive trees, but the production building and surrounding work pad are not intended for retail sales. Most often a truck or forklift may be parked at the facility near the loading conveyor and things generally seem pretty quiet.
Not on the day I decided to swing in to say hello. The olive harvest had started and the pace of work was full blast. I bounced the idea of a tour off Jeff Martin, the proprietor, and he was agreeable but there was no time for small talk as the inbound olives needed to be milled as soon as possible. Jeff and Pam Martin began discussing the idea of an olive oil business in 2000 and after five years of research, they took the plunge with the planting of 3,500 trees situated on 30 acres of land.
I have to admit a preference for many Italian culinary offerings and traditions. And having had the opportunity to travel in the Piedmont region, my new explorations into olive oil, just added one more layer to the story. Frantoio is an Italian word that means olive mill. It also is the name of a particular variety of olive.
According to Jeff, the vast majority of olive oils produced in California are from Spanish varieties. Frantoio is an old variety from northern Italy, and widely grown in Tuscany. It has distinctive flavor characteristics, both pungent and peppery, and a velvety subtle green hue. During a visit, I was able to taste the newly pressed olive right off the mill — wow, what a flavor sensation.
Most olive oils are blended like a Bordeaux wine to achieve a smooth mouth feel and taste. The Martin’s decided to go with just one varietal, the Frantoio. A couple of rows of Leccino and Pendolino trees were also planted for pollinating purposes.
Jeff calls the oil that I tasted “Olio Nouvo.” It is unfiltered, super fresh and is short-run bottled so supplies each year are extremely limited. Originally, the olives from Frantoio Grove were harvested and immediately transported to Livermore for processing. In 2016, a major equipment investment, a Peralissi olive mill, now affords the Martin’s the opportunity to mill their hand-picked, organic olives within hours of harvest.
Olives are among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world, originating in the eastern Mediterranean a spreading from Syria, Iran and Israel to France, Greece, Italy, Spain and northern Africa. As sturdy, long-lived trees, the orchard in the garden of Gethsemane may have olive trees dating from the time of Christ.
Olive oil production is an art form combined with high stakes gambling. What varieties to grow, when to pick, cool weather may yield too much green fruit or hot temperatures accelerate ripening leaving a very short harvest window.
For the consumer, purchasing fresh olive oil with harvest dates between November and December is optimal. And unlike wine, aging olive oil is detrimental to quality. Both heat and light are the enemies of fresh olive oil. Do not buy large containers for storage as you should try to enjoy your olive oil with six to eight weeks after opening.
One of the questions to ask Jeff is his explanations of what the terms “extra virgin” and “first cold press” mean on olive oil labels. As I understand it, “extra virgin” is the highest grade of olive oil. The oil is milled with mechanical processes only, with no chemical treatments, and without excessive heat. We should also talk food pairing as there are huge differences among “extra virgin” olive oils in terms of delicacy, aroma, the anti-oxidant properties, and how to fry or sautee with olive oil.
We can all enjoy a taste of Italy when we visit Frantoio Grove. Both Rocca’s Market and LJB Farms sell Frantoio Grove olive oil if you are in the mood for a sneak preview! Keep on sauntering!
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