Olive county, USA

Henri explores locally produced olive oils

A NICE VINTAGE <br> Lola Isern gives Marino D. Garbis a sniff of Isern & Sons’ organic extra virgin olive oil at a recent Saturday farmers market.

Lola Isern gives Marino D. Garbis a sniff of Isern & Sons’ organic extra virgin olive oil at a recent Saturday farmers market.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Henri has become increasingly impressed of late with the wide range of excellent olive oils produced in Butte County, as well as with the fruit’s local history, which dates from 1898, when the “Mother of the Ripe Olive Industry,” German immigrant Freda Ehmann, began producing olive oil in Oroville.

Widowed and broke at 56, Ehmann set out on a marketing tour of the West Coast, eventually taking orders for 10,000 gallons of oil, despite the fact that her 20-acre orchard could produce only 1,000 gallons. Upon her return, she filled her orders, founding the Ehmann Olive Oil Co., in Oroville, along the way winning the admiration of Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt.

Olives were cultivated in the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, where they’re native, at least 5,000 years ago, first by ancient Phoenicians and Egyptians, and later by Greeks and Romans. The marked increase in local producers dedicated to making high-quality extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is due in part due to the health benefits of olive oil as well as to the area’s Mediterranean-like climate and soil. Additionally, more and more of the growers are using the Spanish-style high-density espalier system, the trees grown low on wires, allowing for up to nearly 700 trees per acre instead of the traditional 100-150. The California Olive Ranch, whose offices and main orchard are just south of Oroville, has more than a million trees and claims to be the largest olive-oil operation in North America.

One recent Saturday morning, we stopped at the Isern and Sons booth at the downtown Chico farmers market, where we were charmed by a delightful young man (an Isern son), who offered us tastings of three different oils. Each one he swirled in a brandy-snifter-like glass, insisting that we test for “nose,” and then offered us small pieces of bread, which we dipped in the oil for tasting. We especially liked their Early Harvest Mediterranean Style oil and bought a bottle.

We also bought a bottle of Chaffin Family Orchards First Press California Extra Virgin and a bottle of Lodestar Oroblend, infused with garlic. In fact, we were so excited about the different oils that Monday morning we drove out to Orland to West Coast Products and bought a bag-in-a-box of Sicilian-style Arbequina EVOO ($86 for 2.5 gallons—also available in one-gallon bottles and five-gallon bag-in-a-box). Sealed in the plastic bladder, the oil does not get exposed to oxygen and stays good for months if you keep it cool—fill up smaller bottles from the spigot.

So the maison Bourride has become a sort of Olive Oil Central, with bottles all over our kitchen counters, and several small plates on the table at mealtime. Colette likes to add a bit of balsamic vinegar, but I like it pure. Either way, small pieces of sourdough bread dipped in the oil—along with a nice Cabernet Sauvignon—make for delicious and inexpensive appetizers.

Our favorites? I like the West Coast Product’s Arbequina, deep green and pungent, while Colette likes the Isern, a bit lighter. Truth be told, they’re all delicious, and we’re thankful to be living in an area with so many excellent locally made EVOOs.

Note: Generally, olive oils are defined by their acidity. Extra virgin is the least acidic, making it best for dipping, drizzling over vegetables, and in salads, while the more acidic “ordinary” olive oil is fine for frying. Defining and regulating olive oils is problematic, with many different areas and agencies weighing in, providing a confusing—and, for producers, frustrating—hodgepodge of labeling rules. While the U.S. has not adopted the International Olive Oil Council’s regulations, the California Olive Oil Council is working to establish seals that will identify oils that meet IOOC standards.

Where to go

California Olive Ranch
2675 Lone Tree Road, Oroville, 846-8000

Tours Friday mornings May through September. Call for times, information, or for groups of six or more.

Chaffin Family Orchards
606 Coal Canyon Road, Oroville, 533-8239

Tours and guided hikes available by appointment.

Lodestar Olive Oil
3719 Foothill Blvd., Oroville, 534-6548

Tastings and tours Friday and Saturday noon-5 p.m. and other days by appointment.

Other local producers include Tehama Gold, Berkeley Olive Grove, Butte View Olive Co., New Clairvaux Vineyards and Thomas Creek Olive Oil. For more information on olives and olive oils, including history, regulations, nutrition, and recipes, visit www.oliveoilsource.com.