The Mediterranean In Our Own Backyard
Ever wondered, as you douse your salad greens in oil, how many olives it takes to fill a bottle? Or how many olives come from one tree? Maybe you didn’t know Oregon had a fledgling olive oil industry. So you might be asking, “Olives, in Oregon?”
A group, eager to get the answers to these and other questions, not to mention taste some freshly pressed oil, gathered on a recent gray November day.
A short drive from the gas-station and Mexican-restaurant-lined 99W, you’re transported to a lush and hilly patchwork landscape with yellow- and orange-striped vineyards draped over the hills like colorful area rugs. Red Ridge Farms, owned by the Durant family, is perched on lovely rolling acreage. Ken and Penny Durant, pioneers in the Willamette Valley for their pinot production, have, along with their son Paul, woven together a number of passions, creating a place they rightly call a destination—with a plant nursery, winery, olive grove and olive mill on site.
About the farm
I was hard pressed to believe, as I saw the golden elixir pouring forth against a backdrop of 17,000 silvery-green, that this was an accidental venture. Penny, an avid gardener, wanted to plant olive trees. After a successful 2000-tree planting in 2005, the Durants planted 10,000 more. But a deep freeze killed them all. They tried again. Same thing.
Most of us would have given up at that point.
“Third time’s a charm,” Paul said brightly, who oversees the vineyards, olive orchard and olive oil mill.
Now the Durants grow a variety of olives including the Spanish Arbequina; Tuscan varietals (Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino), which do well in the Willamette Valley; as well as a Greek varietal—Koroneiki, and the French Picholine.
While they’re currently milling some of their own olives, they supplement from California, as well as a grove in Salem, Oregon, as their trees mature to produce higher yields.
“Even so,” said Paul, “we plan to keep our relationships with the people in California. It’s a pretty new industry there, too, and we can learn a lot from each other. We trade them wine for advice.”
Olive Oil 101
So how many olives does it take make a bottle of oil anyway?
Paul told us that a 6 or 7 year-old tree can yield about 30 pounds of olives. Red Ridge Farms (whose oil is bottled under the label Oregon Olive Mill) gets about 25 to 45 gallons of oil per ton of olives. That’s about 350 trees per ton of olives. But that varies depending on the olive varietal and age of the tree.
After the olives are crushed, they go into a malaxer. The mass is heated to 27 degrees C, Paul explained, causing one person to ask if that meant the oil was not cold pressed.
“It’s a misnomer actually,” said Paul, who went on to explain how a perfect balance of time, temperature and water was required to extract the ideal amount of oil. If it goes past 27 degrees for too long, the oil will get oxidized. Arbequina olives, for example, take about 20 minutes to complete that process, while the Tuscans take about 45 minutes. And with colder weather, as it had been the night before, the mixture might sit at that temperature longer because the oil solidifies.
This crushed olive mixture whirs around in a centrifuge-like contraption that separates the solids, leaving behind oil and water. It’s still very bitter at that point. More water is then pumped into the centrifuge, which isolates more of the oil. It’s the old oil-and-water-don’t-mix concept in action, except Paul put it more scientifically:
“The whole thing is about amplification of gravity,” said Paul.
Even though this process is a balance of art and science, it still seems like a good dose of magic is required to go from bitter brown sludge to a honey-hued liquid fit for the Gods.
The Oregon Olive Mill produced 4000 bottles of oil last year. This year they’re looking at 8000. Even though they can extract more oil than they do from the process, you also sacrifice flavor.
“While our yield can be somewhat low, our flavor is high,” said Paul.
Red Ridge Farms keeps the oil in large containers, which they bottle on an as-needed basis a couple times a week, ensuring its quality and freshness.
We all wandered out to the grove where Libby Clow, Olive Oil Program Ambassador, explained how the dwarf varietals allow for easier harvesting, which is done by hand even though the Spaniards developed the Arbequina about 30 years ago for its ability to be machine harvested. The Arbequina, while less meaty than the Tuscans, produces more oil. However the Tuscan makes for a better cured olive.
Tasting and cooking with olive oil
There are three flavor components in olive oil—fruity, bitter and pungent.
Because we each have different enzymes in our saliva, we don’t all taste oils in quite the same way, explained Libby, who instructed us to warm our oil samples with our hands before smelling and tasting. Oil this good, on its own, makes for some powerful stuff. The oils start out out buttery and smooth and finished as if you’d just taken a hit from a joint. The Tuscan oil we were tasting was pressed the day before.
You can’t get much fresher than that.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal named Red Ridge Farms’ Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil one of the five best produced in the United States. That puts Oregon on the culinary map once again.
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