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Olive Oil: Big Flavor from Small Batches

by Laura Giannatempo

fromFine Cooking
Issue 78

When Michael Keller got his first taste of just-pressed olive oil—fragrant and still cloudy from pressing—he couldn’t believe how good it was. “It was alive, singing. I was hooked,” he says.

In the late 1990s, inspired by the early successes of California’s new olive oil producers, Michael began picking olives from abandoned trees in Marin County and hauling them to the now-famous McEvoy Ranch to press them into oil. It wasn’t long before he and his wife, Monica, bought a small orchard in Yuba County, near Sacramento, and started Calolea Olive Oil. Almost immediately, their intensely fruity and spicy Mission blend won Best of Class at the prestigious Los Angeles County Fair two years in a row.

The Kellers grow several varieties of olives on their beautiful 30-acre estate, including Mission, Manzanilla, and Sevillano. With the help of another worker during harvest, husband and wife handpick the olives early in the season, when many are still green, to get a punchier, peppery flavor. They take the olives to a neighboring press within 24 hours (to keep the acidity low) and store the oil in dark tanks until it’s bottled to order—unfiltered. The Kellers bottle only about 1,000 gallons a year of their prized oil, which they sell to local stores and farmers’ markets or by mail order.

For more information on Calolea extra-virgin olive oil, visit Calolea.com.

From fruit to oil
  • Olives are picked the old-fashioned way: Jaime Reynoso gently beats the branches to cause the olives to fall on a tarp. The olives are then collected into buckets.
  • Michael Keller pours just-picked olives through a traditional, low-tech de-leafer (a bare-bones sieve) to separate the fruit from the leaves.
  • Butte View Olive Company's Lewis Johnson, the neighbor who presses Michael’s olives, pours them into a vat...
  • ...where they’re picked up by a conveyor belt and washed.
  • Olives are ground to a paste, which is mixed for 20 to 40 minutes to help the oil separate; a centrifuge (shown here) then spins the paste to extract the oil.
  • Just-pressed olive oil is stored in barrels, where the particles that make it cloudy settle to the bottom.

Photos: Thor Swift

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