by Kate Heyhoe
In 1997, the staff of the electronic Gourmet Guide (a.k.a. the eGG, the precursor to The Global Gourmet) attended an olive oil tasting and stone crushing in Mill Valley, California.
The eGGsters were honored to partake in the launch of the New Olio Festival, at the unique Frantoio Ristorante in Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The cognoscenti of the area—winemakers, olive growers, chefs, food writers and importers—were all in attendance, adding as much to the educational aspects as they did to the convivial atmosphere.
Frantoio was a most fitting site for the tasting event. Not just a restaurant, it also crushes its own olive oil using a large traditional stone, visible from the handsome, loft-like dining room. You might think this is just a capricious gimmick to lure in tourists and locals—a bit like the mina bird at the old Knott's Berry Farm—but not so. This is an actual working operation: the owners not only crush their own olives (bottling and selling the oil), but also the ones of their neighboring olive growers.
It's not like you'll be able to drop in to Frantoio and see the crushing of the olives at just any time, nor should you expect a scheduled tour. But at the end of winter when the olives have just been picked, the stones crush them, pits and all, until the last of the harvest is transformed into luscious, earthy liquid gold. If you are lucky enough to dine there when the big stones are turning, you can see the whole process in action. Once crushed, the olives are spread on round mats, stacked on top of each other, then pressed and drained until the raw oil is collected. It is eventually strained and separated from its water.
"The pits have a preservative effect," explained our dinnermate Colleen McGlynn. A former Bay area chef herself, she now helps run the family olive oil business with her husband Ridgely Evers. "Frantoio's mill crushes their own olives as well as ours, which is called DaVero, and others' in the area," she explained.
We wondered if this rise in California olive oil growers was much like the California wine movement a decade or two ago, when wealthy lawyers, doctors and filmmakers convened on the area, investing in their own boutique vineyards. As Colleen noted, there is a saying: "Blend grapes for your kids and olives for your grand kids." Evidently, the process of raising olive trees and turning a profit on them is much longer than one might expect. Still, dabbling in olive oil is becoming quite a California "thing."
This page modified February 2007
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