Video from Sciabica’s California Olive Oil of Sciabica’s new olive mill.
On October 8th, members of the Food History Project gathered at the SLO Provisions for a presentation on the history of olives and olive oil by grower and artist Will Carlton.
Origin and Myths of Olives
The olive trees of today came from the wild olives of Asia Minor. Its ancestors underwent breeding before recorded history at least 6000 years ago.
Olives started to be cultivated at the same time in Crete and Syria in 3500 BCE. Phoenician traders exported olive oil and olive cuttings to northern Africa and Egypt, and Minoan traders from Crete took their oil and cuttings to Greece and west Southern Europe. Later as the Roman Empire expanded, olive trees were planted in present-day France and Spain.
When Romans arrived in North Africa they found olives already planted and as the Moors expanded their trees into Spain, the circle around the Mediterranean was complete.
The use of olive oil became part of everyday life all throughout the Mediterranean. It lit up the night, greased axles, cooked food, and was food. It was currency. It healed bodies and increasingly was used to anoint kings, priests, athletes, and travelers. Its wood was used for thrones and scepters.
Everywhere olive was planted, the same myths recurred. It was a sacred tree. When the Persians invaded Greece and torched their trees, the trees quickly regenerated; the olive became a symbol of permanence and rebirth. The olive thrives in tough conditions where many crops fail. It was seen as a gift, and it is still seen as a symbol of peace, hope, and transcendence.
Olives in the New World
In the early 1500s, the Spanish Conquest brought many new crops to South and Central America including olives. By the mid-1700s the Spanish Jesuits brought olives to Mexico, and the Franciscans brought olive trees the California Missions.
The first oil was pressed in early 1800. Gradually, Portuguese, Italian, and French immigrants brought their varietals to California and by 1885 commercial olive oil production began in Ventura.
Gradually, however, olive oil production slowed with the introduction of less expensive seed oils, but huge plantings for table olives began in the Central Valley. The whole idea was a food processing trick, resulting in the California Ripe Olive.
Most olive mills closed. California olives couldn’t compete with subsidized olive oil. One mill remained open in Modesto, The Sciabica Olive Mill, started by Joe Sciabica, a Sicilian immigrant who arrived in 1920. His son Nick still runs it today.
With the natural foods movement of the 60s and 70s, a rekindling of interest in olive oil took place, Realizing they had old olive trees in their properties, a few winemakers in Napa and Sonoma began revitalizing their trees.
Lila Jaeger from Napa had 200-year-old Spanish trees, Bruce Cohn of Sonoma (manager of the Doobie Brothers and an excellent winemaker) had 300 Picholine trees planted by French immigrants. They were making excellent olive oil by 1992 in The Sciabica Mill in Modesto. Ridgeley Evers, founder of Quickbooks, started to import Italian trees from Tuscany and planted his own grove. Two organic growers for Alice Waters of Chez Pannise abandoned their fields for a while, went to Italy, and brought back 1000s of Tuscan olive tree cuttings. Tiber Canyon’s own grove was planted with those cuttings in 1998.
Tiber Canyon Olives
It was in 1993 that Will Carlton and Chris Anderson moved to Tiber Canyon. One might say it was remote; take Price Canyon to the oil fields, go under the train tracks, and wind your way up a gravel road. Towards the top of the hill, surrounded by ancient oaks and Manzanita, Chris and Will built their timber-framed home, barn, and glass-blowing studio. The fifty-acre parcel has a view over the Edna Valley and beyond, this is the Central Coast at its finest. They set up shop and began creating a wide variety of glass-blown crafts, and at one point, 3000 Christmas ornaments per year! That’s a lot of time spent in front of a hot, glass-blowing furnace. Maybe it was time to start working the land, and in 1998 they added ‘grower’ to their resume.
Decades before Chris and Will arrived, ten acres of the property had been cleared to plant apricot trees, but this orchard had long been abandoned. Thinking there were already plenty of grapes growing in the area, they decided on olives trees. To match the Mediterranean climate, olive trees found in Tuscany were planted. In order to achieve a balanced taste, several different varietals were planted and would be harvested and processed together. Tiber Canyon Olive Oil is a combination of ten varietals including Lecchino, Pendolino, Fratoio, and Moriola, each important for their respective qualities. The characteristics of the different varietals include: balance and longevity, fruitiness, and bitterness. Ten percent of the trees are specifically for pollination and are planted throughout the grove.
Harvest time is late fall when the olives are just right. This in itself is a personal decision. Early harvest brings a strong, grassy and peppery flavor, later harvest more mild and buttery. Within 24 hours of picking, the olives are taken to a mill and processed. The crop is inspected for insects or damage, weighed, washed and crushed in a stainless steel mill. The entire olive is used, pits and all, creating an oily paste. The sharp aroma of the milled olives will not escape your senses.
The pulverized mass is mixed until ‘just right’ and then pumped into a centrifuge and spun at 2000RPM, separating the pulverized pits, water, and olive oil. Stored in stainless steel barrels the process is complete in just a few hours.
One of the reasons Will and Chris decided to grow olives is for its many health benefits. A diet rich in olive oil is said to lower your chances of cancer, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and type-2 diabetes.
Tasting Olive Oil
There is a specific way to taste test olive oil. Three main profiles of the oil to pay attention to: fruitiness, bitterness, and pepper. There should be no hint of rancid or musty aroma.
Specific tasting glasses for olive oil are made of cobalt blue and spherical in shape. (Hand blown by Will). Warm the oil in the base of the cup with your palm, breathe in the aroma, take some in your mouth, then slurp while breathing in heavily to coat the inside of the mouth. Don’t be surprised if you cough, it is a lot of flavor to take in at once. This is what real olive oil tastes like!
Tiber Canyon Ranch olive groves are maintained using sustainable farming methods. No petrochemicals, fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides and can be found in specialty stores, farmer’s markets and purchased online. http://www.tibercanyon.com
By Karen Petersen
Source: Tiber Canyon Ranch website and Will Carlton’s presentation notes.