Archive for the ‘Olive oil’ Category

The Olive Harvest


Last week, auspiciously, on the first day of real frost, we began picking the olives at the home ranch in the Anderson Valley. A crew of eight or ten arrived promptly at 7:00AM, meeting my partner with the trailer and the big wooden bins. The grass crunches under our feet as we proceed to the upper field. Most of the heavily-laden trees are in the lower field, but less exposed to the shriveling frost. The cold temperatures do little to the trees themselves, but the fruit is another story entirely. If a ripe olive freezes through, the outer skin puckers and it appears dried out and wrinkled. With its higher oil content, the pulp remains reasonably intact within the skin, with no degradation to the flavor of the oil. Unfortunately, this season’s unpredictable weather patterns meant that much of the fruit is still green, higher in water than oil, and susceptible to frost damage. It would be critical to get all of the fruit off of the exposed trees as quickly as possible. The pickers take on the small trees in pairs, the foggy clouds of their breath echo with sounds of laughter and the field blend of English and Spanish often heard in the vineyard.
The sun begins to warm our hands around ten, but we do not finish this field until the midday break. Hand picking is laborious work, and we move to the south field after lunch. Many of the Mission olives are already showing the discolorations from the frost, and we move quickly, using small plastic rakes and tarps to strip the more heavily laden trees of their fruit. The first of the 1100 pound bins fills; all shapes and sizes of fruit, the colors ranging from bright lime green to dark winy purple to almost black. We end the day around five, with a round of sodas, chips, salsa and chicharrones, pork rinds deep fried in their own lard, a by-product of the rendering process and a favorite snack of the crew.
The picking resumes the next morning, and, luckily, the temperature is about five degrees warmer, just enough, according to my partner, to keep the remainder of the green olives from spoiling before they are pressed. He and I take on all of the small trees, carefully stripping them of all their fruit. By early afternoon, all of the fruit is in, and we have almost filled two of the four large bins. The crew departs, delighted to be finished early, as many of them are preparing to travel south to Mexico for their annual family holiday visits. My partner and I caravan over the mountain to the press, and the second part of the annual process.
As it was last year, the press building is bone-chilling cold, the late afternoon sun already behind the ridge. We have almost a ton of olives, and they are weighed, washed, and carried up the conveyor to the press. As if by magic, a few hours later, the brilliant green stream of oil begins to dribble from the final separator. We place a plastic cup under it, and then stand in a circle, sipping the pungent new oil. The predominant flavors are those of leaves and grass, with a strong, underlying bitterness. There is little evidence of fruitiness, and we will have to once again blend this oil with those of other producers in warmer climates, where the olives ripen more fully. As we prepare to part ways, the big drum of oil is loaded on my partner’s truck, the bins are once again strapped down on the trailer, and he begins the long drive back to his ranch in the Sierra foothills. I securely belt down my gallon bottle of the new oil for the trip back to the coast, and for another year, this ancient process is completed. The annual cycle of the farm comes to a close as the crop is gathered in. The short days herald the season of dormancy for the trees, and I head home to a warm fire and a bowl of winter vegetable soup, drizzled with the new oil.
Zuppa Frantoiana (Tuscan Olive Mill Soup)
1 ½ cup dried shell beans, soaked overnight (cranberry beans are traditional)
1 medium carrot, cut in chunks
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
1 stalk celery, cut in chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 bunch cavolo nero (lacinato or dinosaur kale)
1 medium yellow potato, peeled and cubed
1 winter squash of pumpkin, peeled and cubed
1 medium carrot, cut in large cubes
½ teaspoon crushed fennel seed and/or fennel pollen
6-8 slices rustic bread
1 large clove garlic, peeled and cut in half
New olive oil (olio nuovo)
Drain the beans and place them in your soup pot with about 3 cups water to cover, the first carrot, onion and celery. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, covered; at a bare simmer until the beans are tender (you can use a crock pot for this step). The time will depend on age and size of the beans, but will be around one hour.
Once the beans are tender, remove and set aside about ½ cups of the whole beans. Put the remaining beans and vegetables, together with any cooking liquid, through your food mill and return to the rinsed-out pot. Taste and add salt and pepper if desired.
In a saucepan, gently sauté the chopped garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil; when the garlic is softened but not browned, add to the pureed beans, along with the oil in the pan. Strip the tough center ribs from the kale, and coarsely chop the leaves. Add the kale, cubed potato, squash or pumpkin, and second carrot to the pot. Again bring to a simmer, and cook gently, covered, until the vegetables are tender, then stir in the fennel seed and/or pollen, the reserved whole beans, and additional salt and pepper if you wish.
Toast the bread slices, and rub with the cut garlic. When ready to serve, drizzle a liberal splash of new oil over the one side of each bread slice, and place in the bottom of your individual soup plates. Spoon the hot soup over the bread, and add another dollop of new oil to the center of each serving without stirring it in.  Serve immediately.
Post by Julia Conway on December 17th, 2008

Think Local, Buy Local, Eat Local


The tables at our local farmers’ markets are full of the bounty of the fall harvest, but the chilly winds and the occasional showers remind all of us that we are inexorably marching toward winter. Here on the Mendocino Coast, our wet winter weather makes gardening and farming difficult at best, and next to impossible in some locations. Those of us who produce and consume local food are challenged to find locally grown vegetables through the long slow season. Yesterday, I picked up a flat of San Marzano tomatoes that will finish ripening in my warm pantry and then be processed into the rich red sauce that my Italian grandmother used to make. There is something vaguely comforting about seeing the rows of jars line the shelf, each containing a taste of sunshine at its heart.
This year, the potent storm of economic uncertainty hovers on the horizon. A friend’s mother tells stories of growing up on a truck farm in southern California’s Riverside County during the Great Depression. She says that the family always had enough to eat, because they usually couldn’t sell all the vegetables they produced. She told of stewed tomatoes served over baking powder biscuits, a fond memory of a supper long passed, and we all wonder what we will face in the coming winter months. A chef friend of mine calls it “chipmunking,” the storing away of food and supplies in anticipation of scarcity. Today, more than ever, I consider all the sources of food inside that magical circle of our local economy. Some of my favorite farmers, John and Joanne at Noyo Hill Farm, are planning to continue selling vegetables off the farm all winter long. Mendocino Organics, an inland producer has already started planting vegetables for their first-ever winter CSA program. A winegrower friend, and fellow Slow Food member Julie Golden has donated four acres on her Heart Arrow Ranch in Redwood Valley toward the project, along with the Freys, also in Redwood Valley and the Decaturs at Live Power Farm in Covelo. Mendocino Organics is unusual in that they own no land. Their harvests depend on collaboration and cooperation with the community at large.
Harvest Market, our local coastal specialty and natural food market has partnered with many of our local farmers this summer to bring locally grown produce to a wider range of shoppers. Their “Local Means Local” program provides a new opportunity for many of these market farmers to sell their produce after the seasonal farmers’ markets close at the end of October. We will be pouring our locally produced olive oil there this coming Thursday the 16th, at the “Customer Appreciation Day,” held annually to celebrate the anniversary of the store’s opening. The Honer and Bosma families, who own and operate the store, are committed to a sustainable local economy, and strive to strike a balance between supporting local food producers and providing lower-cost value options. Ours is an economically challenged community, and many food choices are driven by price alone. In Mendocino County, our average wage is well below that which would support the purchase of a median priced home. The hospitality, fishing and forestry jobs that remain here are largely seasonal, so winter affords little in the way of luxury here.
With October designated as “Local Foods Month” in many places, our focus turns to economics on a smaller scale. How do we create a sustainable local food system? How much can be produced here, and which goods must come from farther away? With transportation costs spiraling out of control, what is the true cost of the cheap foods we have become accustomed to in our sprawling industrial food system? As Americans, we have become spoiled by too many choices. I remember returning to California from my first trip to the Italian countryside. I wandered the well stocked aisles of the supermarket and my head literally ached from the overwhelming quantity of food and other goods. As we drove past an auto mall the other day in Santa Rosa, I was struck by the absurdity of the rows and rows of gleaming automobiles, not unlike the rainbow of jars, bottles, bags and boxes that line the supermarket shelves. I longed for the simplicity of the small grocers and itinerant street markets of rural Tuscany. Even without all of this so-called bounty, I never felt that my choices were in any way limited. In fact, the opposite was true. The robust porcini mushrooms; only eight or so in the box, would be sold out by day’s end, and that somehow made them more precious. Anything I would cook using them would be a celebration of their fleeting seasonality. 
Many philosophical traditions talk of “daily bread,” the idea of having just what we need as opposed to everything we desire. I realize that, while there is comfort in knowing that the freezer and the pantry are filled to bursting, there is also grace in the simplicity of having only to focus on today. Today, I will not worry about the global economy. I choose not to ruminate on whether the shelves of the supermarket will be full or empty in the coming months. I choose to celebrate the abundance of the harvest and eat well today, with an abiding gratitude for what I have.
Post by Julia Conway on October 9th, 2008