Have you ever tried an olive right off the tree? It’s terribly bitter. So unpleasant, in fact, that it makes you wonder how it ever occurred to someone to make it into something consumable. How did the ancient Greeks 5,000 years ago know pressing the stuff into oil would be so good?
Legend has it that Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, gave humanity the gift of the olive tree. Poseidon had offered a salt-water fountain to them too, symbolizing the promise of maritime power and strength. But the humans of the city Atica valued the olive more, for the medical and economic benefits it would bestow. They renamed their city after the goddess who delivered this precious commodity. And so Atica became Athens.
On a muggy fall day in the hills of Petaluma, a few of us from Frog Hollow walked through the olive groves of McEvoy Ranch discussing legends and the origins of olive oil. “One story has it that an olive branch just happened to lean into salt water,” said Amy, our tour guide and olive oil expert, who’s been with McEvoy for 17 years. Supposedly a passerby picked an olive off of the submerged branch, tasted it, and had an aha that would change the course of Mediterranean culinary history forever. Given the careful way Frog Hollow grows our olives and the masterful way McEvoy cold-presses them into delicious oil, it’s hard to imagine that such a beautiful thing as Olio Nuovo stems from an accident. But surely many great discoveries do. Who knows. What we do know is that over the centuries, the Tuscan olive growers in Italy have refined the process impressively and now, Frog Hollow and McEvoy continue the tradition.
With our hair nets and camera phones out, we followed Rigo, McEvoy’s Mill Manager of more than 11 years, to the milling room. Just outside were the latest bins of our olives, which we had delivered to McEvoy that day. While most other olive growers in California now use mechanical harvesting equipment to pick their olives, we still do it the old-fashioned way, all by hand. After hand-picking our olives, we transport them straight to McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, CA, where they are cold-pressed into a bold-flavored, grassy oil.
There are three particularly special qualities to our oil as compared to your average store-bought stuff. 1) The Tuscan blend (and the fact that the olives are organic), 2) its “extra-virgin” designation, and 3) the fact you can enjoy it right off the presses as “Olio Nuovo”.
The Tuscan Blend
Four different Tuscan varieties of olives make up our olive oil: the Maurino, Frantoio, Leccino, and the Pendolino. Each contributes its own flavors and adds to the health-boosting antioxidant properties of the resulting oil. The Frantoio, the dominant flavor, has a great balance of fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency. The Leccino, the first of the four to ripen, gives that bitterness and a little bit of sweetness and spice. Maurino olives give the oil that fruity, grassy, fresh quality. And the Pendolino, only 10% of the blend, is unusually sweet for an olive—a great counterbalance to the grassy, deliciously pungent qualities of the rest. Each olive variety ripens at a different time but we pick them all on the same day. That mix of green (less ripe) and purple (ripe) olives is what makes the Tuscan blend so famous. The fruity and spicy finish of oils is a result of a higher level of ripe olives, which give the oil a milder (soft) and more buttery flavor. The greener olives give the oil the grassy, herbaceous and almost bitter, pungent quality.
Early harvest is a fundamental aspect of the ancient Tuscan olive tradition. We carefully time the harvest so that we achieve a higher ratio of green to black olives in each batch. Though green olives produce less oil than black, we sacrifice yield for flavor. Plus, the earlier the harvest, the higher the polyphenol levels (a type of antioxidant). Polyphenols provide all sorts of benefits for the body, inside and out.
What makes it “Extra Virgin”
We could smell the olive oil in the air as we entered the milling room. It feels soft on your skin, silkiness floating around everywhere. Each olive variety smells a little different when pressed, Rigo tells us. His favorite leaves an apple-like perfume. Amazing!
From the shiny machinery and the loud, continual whirring of the press, it was immediately apparent that pressing olive oil is an intricate skill. First, Rigo walked us through the process of washing the olives, separating them from the leaves, and putting them in the blade mill to be ground up. There’s pressure involved—three chambers in the blade mill, each set at different and precise pressures. And then more chemistry—as the ground up olive paste goes into the malaxer (a machine that prepares the pit, olive flesh, and water to be separated from the oil), it’s warmed up a little to separate out the solids. Next, the mixture flows into the decanter and then a vertical separator, further separating the oil from any last particles. This part separates the olive water from the olive oil. Then, the finished olive oil is ready to taste! A tiny bit of it flowed into a little cup for us to try (yum!) and the rest into large drums to be driven back to Frog Hollow for bottling.
Rigo explained that the oil that passes through the mill is never exposed to a chemical or heat treatment. The “cold-pressing” of the fruit is what makes it extra virgin, in addition to a rigorous certification process by a certifying board in California that has an eye for fruit quality and flavor profiles too. Extra virgin oil is a higher-quality, darker, more flavorful oil with a great range of flavors depending on the batch of olives. Because we take care in growing and harvesting our olives, all we have to do is grind them and bottle the extracted oils. And because of our regenerative, organic practices, we have happy trees that produce lots of olives. Typically, one of our trees produces two gallons of oil. That’s double the average for olive oil producers worldwide. And it’s delicious—rich in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, and bright green when fresh. The freshest oil stays this vibrant for a couple months after pressing. This is the special stuff, what we wait all year for and then savor as much of as we can while we can. It’s called Olio Nuovo.
Olio Nuovo is bright green and cloudy, and tastes bright and peppery right on the back of your tongue. The pepperiness might even make you cough a bit. Some might use the word “pungent” to describe its unique quality, which in high culinary society is a great compliment. Olio Nuovo is the freshest the oil can taste and it can only be experienced for the first couple months after the oil comes back from the press. The flavor can surprise people who are used to the more mellow, tasteless oil. But you’ll quickly find yourself pouring it on everything, dipping bread in it, and enjoying it with anything fresh. With age, the oil will mellow, becoming softer and rounder in flavor. But Olio Nuovo is meant for celebrating the heightened flavors and polyphenols so unique to the fresh press … and for applying liberally!