It was a misty morning, but the big, billowing clouds just made the Sonoma landscape that much more beautiful and moody. Thankfully, living up north in Michigan for the last couple of years have trained me from my city-style inclinations just enough to know to wear boots when headed to an olive ranch on a rainy day in Sonoma. Dry feet=happy camper.
I’ve been spending the last few days in California at a big conference for culinarians, which as you can imagine means great conversation (Thomas Keller told us: “to glaze an onion is a triumph to me”…) and even better food in one of the best food cities in the world, San Francisco. A small group of us made an excursion north to visit McEvoy Ranch, an idyll of an olive farm nestled in the hills of Petaluma.
The season is just on the cusp of bloom here, coming out of what they call winter (but we Michiganders know better), and even now, before everything is in bloom, everything seems…in bloom. One of the beautiful things about this part of the world is that nothing ever quite dies, so that even the fallow season feels very much alive. When I came to live out here to go to culinary school, I was coming out of my own sort of fallow season, one that was transformed to new life by all the elements of this place. No wonder it feels so much like home for having lived here just a short time.
The beauty of McEvoy Ranch is matched by the quality of its Tuscan-style, certified organic, olives and oil (i.e., peppery, complex), which is harvested and milled every November. And when the mill is open, it is open to all, so that anyone growing olives in the area can come and have their fruit pressed and take home their own oil—which strikes me as so old country, because this is the same kind of communal approach that takes place in Lebanese villages like Dier Mimas, an olive-rich region in southern Lebanon from which the Abood family hails.
At McEvoy, stone rollers grind the olives in the “cold press” process. “Cold” is noteworthy because a cold press doesn’t create heat, and heat is one of the greatest enemies of olive oil, along with light (which is why the oil is typically in green bottles), air, and time.
There are several grades of olive oil; extra-virgin is the highest of them, meaning that the oil has no defects such as rancidity and also has a tightly controlled level of acidity. We may buy a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil but that moniker has a shelf-life; if your oil isn’t used up by the use-by date (ideally within a year of harvest), the defects resulting from time and perhaps other factors such as light and air mar the oil quality, then the oil is no longer extra-delicious–and is no longer considered extra-virgin.
Our olive oil tasting was not unlike a wine tasting, with similar types of complexity and nuance to be gleaned from different types of oils. The pros taste their olive oil in blue-tinted glasses, so as to not be influenced by the color of the oil. But even in our little bio-degradable cups, this olive oil tasted like pure California gold. Drizzled over good bread with a slice of local Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam cheese? A girl thinks she’s died and gone to heaven.