Just as grape-picking and -crushing comes to an end, the olive season is getting quickly under way in northern California's wine country.
Olive trees also like a dry Mediterranean climate, and many vineyards and ranches have orchards of gray-green olive trees dotting the valleys and hillsides. Throughout November, crews lay tarps under the trees, and then hit the branches with long poles to knock the olives to the ground.
Like winemakers, olive oil producers look for distinct flavors from different varietals of olives, but unlike wine, olive oil doesn't need to age and has its most interesting and intense flavors when freshly pressed.
Nan Tucker McEvoy helped to usher in this industry in Northern California wine country when she established McEvoy Ranch in the Marin County hills of West Petaluma.
Originally, it was to be the site of her country home, but the region was not residentially zoned, so she needed an agricultural activity for permitting. She decided there were enough vineyards in the area, and so she set her sights on an olive ranch.
McEvoy was told it couldn't be done because of the cool fog in Marin County, but that only increased her determination. She hired Maurizio Castelli, an olive oil expert from Tuscany, who helped her develop an organic olive ranch specializing in Italian varietals including the popular Frantoio and Leccino.
"We want the intense bitter flavor of the green olives, so we tend to harvest on the earlier side, even though the riper they get, the more oil the olives have," said education director Jill Lee.
McEvoy Ranch is only open to the public a few times a year. On Dec. 7, visitors can tour the orchards and try the newly milled Olio Nuovo olive oil. In the spring, there will be tours of McEvoy's private gardens. Click here to make reservations.
McEvoy Ranch also has its own frantoio, or stone olive mill, that presses the fruit right on the property. Vineyards from around the region who are foraying into the olive oil business have also started pressing their olives at McEvoy.
Medlock Ames Winery in Sonoma County brings its crops of Italian and Spanish varietal olives to McEvoy for pressing. Ames Morison, co-owner of the vineyard, believes that including Spanish olives like Manzanillo and Arbequina help round out the Italian fruit by adding a distinct spice and peppery bite. He suggests paring a pasta dish drizzled with oil with a red blend, like a merlot/cabernet to match the bold flavors of the new oil. He plans on having his winery's first commercial batch of olive oil for sale this spring for members of its wine club.
Frantoio Ristorante in Mill Valley, Calif. (152 Shoreline Hwy., Mill Valley, Calif., 94941) boasts a large stone olive oil press right off the dining room. In November and December, guests can watch the fruits being crushed with a huge granite stone.
Owner Roberto Zecca, originally from Tuscany, believes there's a mystic connection between people and the olive tree and refers to ancient Greece and Mesopotamian cultures use of it thousands of years ago. His restaurant's olive oil is cold pressed, organic, and sold only through his store and Web site to manage the quality. Zecca says he doesn't allow his oil to get old on shelves.
When tasting newly pressed oil, he advises: "This is a condiment, so don't go for pleasure. Rather, look for analysis. From new oil you want bitterness: the taste of green leaves, freshly cut grass and artichokes. There should be a peppery burst in the back of your throat. As it ages, it becomes more mellow."
Not all olive oils in Northern California come from Italy or Spain. At the Sonoma vineyard and winery B. R. Cohn (15000 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen, Calif., 95442) lore has it that in the 1870's, a French peddler planted their Picholine trees, which are olives thought to be native to France.
Following their grape harvest, when the olives are 30 percent green for the peppery flavor, 30 percent turning, and 30 percent black for the high oil content, they are harvested and then taken to nearby Olive Press to be made into specialty oils that range from extra-virgin olive oil to Meyer lemon oil. These are sold in their gift store along with other specialty foods like vinegars.
Tom Montgomery, winemaker at B. R. Cohn, suggests pairing dishes that include newly pressed olive oils with Sauvignon Blanc so the crispness of the wine and the sharpness of the oil are in harmony, or align with what he calls the "intuitive palate." B. R. Cohn offers vineyard and olive orchard tours and tastings by appointment and they have free classes on brining olives coming up on Jan. 25 and March 1.
To really immerse yourself, the Sonoma Valley Olive Festival takes place in December, January and February. For this event, vineyards, restaurants and the Olive Press host olive oil cooking classes, martini parties, olive brining events, and wine and oil tastings. Visit the festival's Web site for more information.
November is also the beginning of wild mushroom season in Northern California. Paul Canales, executive chef at Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, pairs olio nuovo with fresh porcini mushrooms.
Shaved Salad of Fresh Porcini Mushrooms and Fall Vegetables with, Regina olio nuovo, Parmigiano reggiano, and Aged aceto balsamico
Yield: 4 servings
3 ea. fennel bulbs, trimmed of any discolored areas
1/2 ea. lemon
2 oz. Regina extra-virgin olive oil, freshly pressed (olio nuovo) To taste - salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ea. fresh Porcini Mushrooms, small #1, approximately golf ball sized -- or 2 ea. worm free #2 fresh porcini, no larger than the size of your hand and with firm gills
For shaving - Parmigiano reggiano
4 tbsp. Aceto balsamico, aged at least 12 years
Using a knife, thinly slice the fennel bulbs at about 1/8" thick, using the root end as a handle. As you get to the root, angle the bulb slightly to one side and continue slicing until you reach the root again. Finish shaving on the opposite side, then discard the root.
To prepare the porcini, simply wipe each clean with a damp cloth. Do not submerge in water or scrub, as this will cause the mushrooms to become soggy.
Toss the fennel with a generous pinch of salt, a couple of twists of freshly cracked black pepper, and the olive oil. Divide the fennel among 4 chilled plates. Shave the porcini mushrooms as thinly as possible over each plate of vegetables (a truffle slicer is ideal, but a knife will also work), and shave a little Parmigiano over each with a vegetable peeler.
Finish the salads by drizzling 1 tablespoon of the balsamico over each and serve immediately.
Spaghetti with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Olives and Capers
This recipe is from the Olive Harvest Cookbook by Gerald Gass, executive chef at McEvoy Ranch.
1 red onion, sliced 1/8 inch thick and julienned
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil, plus extra if needed
1 pound high-quality imported Italian spagetti
2/3 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained, with oil reserved and julienned
1/2 cup dry-cured black olive, pitted and julienned
2 tablespoons salt-packed capers, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes and drained
Leaves from 1/2 bunch fresh basil, cut in chiffonade (about 1 cup)
1/2 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and/or chiffonade-cut basil for serving (optional).
In a small sauté pan, combine the onion, garlic, and ¼ cup olive oil over very low heat and warm for 10 minutes. The onion and garlic should not sizzle.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in plenty of salted, boiling water until al dente, 8-12 minutes, or according to package directions. While the pasta is cooking, finish preparing the sauce. In a large, warmed bowl, combine the onion mixture, tomatoes, olives, capers, currants, basil, salt and pepper. Measure the oil reserved from the tomatoes and add extra virgin olive oil as needed to total ¼ cup. Add to the bowl and mix together well.
When the pasta is ready, drain it, add to the sauce, and toss to coat well. Divide among warmed individual bowls. Top with the cheese and/or basil, if desired, and serve at once.