by Ron Sanders, Alta Cresta Olive Orchard
As we all know, October is grape harvest time in Paso Robles. Now its harvest time in the olive world. Since the 1990’s growing olives for oil has seen a resurgence in California, nowhere more so than here in the Paso Robles area.
Paso is known for its Mediterranean type climate, similar to the region where olives originated. While you won’t see vast olive orchards spreading out for miles, you will find smaller orchards that are family owned and operated. The olive trees and olives are personally cared for and extra virgin olive oils of many different styles and characteristics are produced.
The color stage is used to decide on a harvest date. Since we are a small operation, we don’t have our own olive mill. We schedule our harvest crew and the mill about a month in advance. We have to get the timing right or the oil won’t have the flavor characteristics we want.
Here at Alta Cresta Olive Orchard the olives have begun to change from green to a red/green shade and some have entered the final stage of olive ripeness: black/dark purple. This is the time we assess the crop size and the extent of the color change.
The flavor of an olive oil is primarily determined by the olive varietal and the ripeness of the olive. Olives are actually ripe in all three color stages from green to black. Oil from green olives is robust with bold flavors and strong pungency. Oil from green ripe olives can have some bitterness associated with the higher level of polyphenols (anti-oxidants) at this stage. As the olive progresses in ripeness the flavor profile becomes milder until at the black stage, it has become softer and more delicate. We prefer a mix of colors with more green than black to get robust Tuscan style olive oils.
The olive crop this year is small with some growers reporting no olives at all. Our crop is smaller and ripening is later than last year, but we will be harvesting in late November or early December. All our olives are picked by hand to assure the most gentle handling of the olives as possible. Olives are fruit and rough handling will bruise the fruit and produce a lesser quality olive oil.
So, here’s how harvest generally goes:
On the days of harvest the crew arrives before 7:00 am to begin the day’s work. We grow four Italian olive varieties to make three extra virgin olive oils and the orchard is divided into blocks according to olive variety or mix of varieties. Picking is organized in a specific order to achieve the desired blend.
When the olive bins are filled with the right mix, I head out for the olive mill at Foxdale Farms about 7 miles away. I am greeted by Astrid Jensen, her son Blaine, the hum of the mill and the aroma of fresh olives.
My olives are loaded into the receiving hopper and begin their hour long trip through the mill. There is a sense of anticipation, and some anxiety, as I await the first oil of the season. At last the green-gold oil begins to flow from the spout into the waiting drum and I get my first taste the oil. There is really no way to describe the fresh, fruity aroma and taste of the new oil.
The first part of the journey from tree to extra virgin oil has begun. The oil is stored in closed drums with argon gas in the head space to eliminate air and are kept in a temperature controlled room. The oil is allowed to rest for about 6 weeks to settle out remaining solids from the milling before decanting. No filtering. Samples are taken for chemical analysis. Additional samples along with the chemical analyses are sent to the California Olive Oil Council for certification that our oil is extra virgin.
Now we can share our truly fresh, high quality California extra virgin olive oil with you.
Alta Cresta Olive Orchard: Susan and Ron personally maintain the orchard and oversee harvesting and oil production. They store, bottle and label the oil onsite. After the oil is bottled and ready for sale they do the marketing. Alta Cresta Olive Orchard is a truly personal operation that allows complete control of the extra virgin olive oil from growing of the olives to sale to the consumer. The result is premium award winning extra virgin olive oils on which you can depend.
Hours: Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 4pm and by appointment (805) 227-4751
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