It’s a frosty morning in Paso Robles, Calif., and I’m on my way to Fandango Olive Oil for its harvest. Why is it that these places always feature stunning views in the very early morning and late afternoon? I arrive at the ranch run by Jerry and Carolyn Shaffer and park my car behind the trucks of the pickers who are already at work.
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Fandango has been making olive oils I’ve admired for years. The ranch grows only two cultivars, arbequina and koroneiki. The former is of Catalan origin, and the latter Greek. Fandango makes sensationally flavored, mouth-popping blends if you like that sort of thing. I do. In 2013 alone, it won 20 medals in various California competitions.
The Shaffers are among the few certified organic olive oil producers in the region. A lot of sweat and paperwork goes into earning that distinction. For example, the buckets they use have to be scrubbed and free of mud, and when olives go to the mill to be pressed, the crusher and malaxer have to be cleansed thoroughly — at extra cost to the producer — because there mustn’t be residue from a previous, non-organic pressing. One miller told me this cleaning costs an additional $500 on top of everything else.
Olive oil producers must get the timing right
At Fandango, I have a Bourdain moment when Jerry Shaffer takes me out for a tour in his souped-up golf cart. It’s all blue sky and vapor trails. What you typically see in this region and on these ranches and estates are steeply sloping hills. Several growers have told me these slopes in a way create their own microclimate. A dropoff of 75 feet might mean a difference in temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. And this, of course, means olives ripen at different rates, so the grower has to tape off areas that need to be picked for harvest.
Out in the trees, the pickers work by hand, dropping the olives onto blue tarps, which are then carried over to be emptied into buckets. After being sorted, they will be delivered to be pressed within the same day. This is mean, hard and fast work, as evidenced from this email I received from another grower after my tour of Fandango.
Art Kishiyama, the grower at Olio Nuevo, has this to say about his picking schedule: “As fast as possible but within 4 hours. My schedule for tomorrow — first trip to the mill at 10:00 am, 3 hours after the first olive is picked — 2nd trip at about 1:00 pm, again 3 hours after the first olive is picked after 10:00 am, then around 4:00 pm latest, with the same logic, presuming the worst case of the pick day being extended to 9 hours. To make this work, I use two trailers — the 2nd trailer is being loaded while the first trailer is being towed to the mill. Round trip … is 30 minutes — I have 12 bins and use them up to 3 times each with a heavy fruit set.”
Harvesting olives involves a lot of hurry up and go.
The final lap on my tour of olive ranches took me up to San Miguel Olive Farm in San Miguel, Calif. There I met with Richard and Myrna Meisler. As Richard explained to me, olive trees go through “alternate bearing years.” This year happened to be a poor one, but next year could be a great one.
Other growers have given me the same story, but it’s not all bad news. Jerry Shaffer told me that although his yield was disappointing, the quality of his pressed oil was really good. Richard Meisler allowed me a blind tasting of his just-pressed oil. This is a sensory experience; it’s best to do this without bread. What I got at the front of my palate was a buttery beginning. When you taste a high-quality oil, you should expect either a buttery or grassy flavor, and then there is a delayed reaction: A second or two later, you get a peppery finish. It’s a similar experience to tasting wine.
At San Miguel Olive Farm I got another tractor ride, this time with Richard, who showed me something Jerry had done as well. He picked a perfectly ripe olive and squeezed it, checking for water content and oil. I popped it in my mouth, and it tasted like a good olive. This is how the real guys in the business do it. You may have read that eating a raw olive will make you gag. That’s not entirely true. It depends on the degree of ripeness. A really green one might cause you some discomfort, but those are the polyphenols at work. More on polyphenols in our next chapter.
Top photo: Half-ripe olives. Credit: avlxyz / Flickr