For love of olives
Berkeley Olive Grove 1913 offers oils steeped in history
Last week, under the shade of a large olive tree, I sat with Olivia and Darro Grieco, discussing their farm and the oils they’ve produced over the 10 years they’ve owned Berkeley Olive Grove 1913.
“When we bought this place, it was bank-owned,” Darro explained. “It had been 20 years since the trees had been pruned properly—they were 40- to 50-feet high.”
He pointed to the Mission olive trees—there are 23,500 total on their 400-acre property—and talked about how they’ve cleared out the inner branches and trimmed the tops. It’s easier to harvest, Darro said, when the branches are closer to the ground. Plus, fewer branches means less competition for nutrients and, especially important right now, water. (Their grove is dry-farmed, meaning the trees rely on seasonal rains rather than an irrigation system.)
Berkeley Olive Grove 1913, named after the group of Cal professors that planted the olive trees more than 100 years ago, is nestled on the western slope of Table Mountain. In tasting some of their certified-organic and kosher oils, which range from mild to full-bodied and include varieties made with lemons and blood oranges, it’s apparent that the Griecos have reason to be proud. Olivia demonstrated an olive-oil tasting, pouring a small amount into a tiny plastic cup and rubbing it in circles against her palm to warm it. After a few seconds, she said, place your other palm on top to trap the aromas. Then smell and drink.
My first taste yielded some unexpected flavors. They started me with their Reserve, the mildest of the traditional oils. Smooth on the palate, and slightly bitter, it hit me with an intense peppery sensation in the back of my throat. That, Olivia explained (and I later confirmed on foodchannel.com), is a sign that the oil is chock-full of antioxidants. The others packed a little less pepper punch—my favorite was the lemon flavor.
The Griecos have worked hard to determine the health benefits of their oils. They’ve sent batches off for testing to the University of Athens in Greece and received positive results, including a report that their oils are particularly high in a polyphenol that has been proven to protect the nervous system from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
While walking alongside some of the original buildings on the property, built circa 1930, Darro shared some of the history, along with his philosophy for his business. When those professors started their olive operation a century ago, they did so with the vision of it surviving 1,000 years, he said. That is his and Olivia’s goal as well. Their dedication to sustainability is part of that—among other things, they have cattle clear brush and chip the tree trimmings to be reused as mulch.
After spending just a few hours with the Griecos on their Oroville farm, I felt myself going back in time to an era when food was naturally wholesome. Go to www.berkeleyolivegrove.com to learn more about the grove’s history—and future plans, which include adding a mill on-site. Another fun opportunity: Adopt your very own olive tree and harvest it yourself.