Stella Cadente Olive Oil

  (Fort Bragg, California)
true to our rural roots
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Sending 2008 Packing at Last!

Here on the Mendocino coast, at least on our little three acres, we are ready to bid a fond farewell to the year 2008.  The garden sleeps, though little tips of green fava shoots have begun to poke their brave noses out of the damp and chilly soil.  They hold the promise of a new start and a new year, for despite the cold and gloomy skies, spring will return, and with it, the promise of renewal.  The naked apple trees stand guard in the front yard, their dark branches reaching up for the tiniest ray of sunlight amongst the shadows of winter.  The water droplets glisten in the redwood trees like tiny lights, and the hills have finally donned their grass green cloaks.

This year has marked several milestones in our lives; the loss of Jesse, our aged German shepherd mix dog in November, the puppy Gianni’s second birthday in August, and the completion of my second year of self-employment with Assaggiare Mendocino and Stella Cadente Olive Oil.  Of course, we cannot ignore external factors such as the maddeningly unpredictable weather, with a month of hard frost in April and no rain for most of November and December, the roller-coaster of fuel prices and the economy, and, of course, the Presidential election.  I, for one, will be glad to leave behind the insistent voices of the media, the entire process having turned into some sort of macabre reality show.  Our local elections were heated and prolonged, with run-offs and traded insults leading to feuds between neighbors and stolen campaign signs. 

We look forward to resuming the quieter pace of living that beckoned to us almost ten years ago, when we first decided to leave the city.  Much has changed in the intervening years, and yet we have no real regrets.  The winter days are short, which provides perfect opportunity for long talks and slow cooked meals enjoyed in front of a warm fire in the woodstove.  Hearty dishes that warm the soul as well as the stomach seem somehow out of place in warmer times.  Our vegetable box from Noyo Hill Farms contains fennel, chard, beets, celery and cauliflower.  I dig out the dried beans and chickpeas and the assertive spices of the Middle East to prepare highly seasoned vegetable soups and tagines. 

This weekend, we will fire up the wood-burning pizza oven and gather with friends and neighbors to break bread together and toast the coming year.  I prepare tubs of pizza dough, and everyone brings their favorite topping.  Each guest takes an opportunity to design and cook a pizza to be shared with the assembled crowd.  We began this tradition in our first year in this house, and now it has become a ritual of transition for all of us.  In a basket near the fire are pens and small slips of paper; available to anyone who has a memory, a regret, a resentment, or anything else that they wish to let go for the coming year.  The papers are reduced to wisps of smoke in the oven’s heat, disappearing up the chimney and into the darkening sky.  We moisten our pizzas with the new olive oil, and raise our glasses in a toast with locally produced wines, juices and brews.  For the moment, at least in our corner of the world, it is a happy and optimistic time.  What is old is new again, the past is behind us, and the future calls us to the table to share in the gifts that we all have been given.  The seasons change, the sun will return, and there is always something to be grateful for if we take the time to notice.  There is an abundance of food and drink, a warm fire to gather around, friends, family, children and dogs, and the promise of another year, still unspoiled, to enjoy.

 
 

The Olive Harvest

Olive Bins

Last week, auspiciously, on the first day of real frost, we began picking the olives at the home ranch in the Anderson Valley.  A crew of eight or ten arrived promptly at 7:00AM, meeting my partner with the trailer and the big wooden bins.  The grass crunches under our feet as we proceed to the upper field.  Most of the heavily-laden trees are in the lower field, but less exposed to the shriveling frost.  The cold temperatures do little to the trees themselves, but the fruit is another story entirely.  If a ripe olive freezes through, the outer skin puckers and it appears dried and wrinkled.  With its higher oil content, the pulp remains reasonably intact within the skin, with no degradation to the flavor of the oil.  Unfortunately, this season’s unpredictable weather patterns means that much of the fruit is still green, higher in water than oil, and susceptible to frost damage.  It will be critical to get all of the fruit off of the exposed trees as quickly as possible.  The pickers take on the small trees in pairs, the foggy clouds of their breath echo with sounds of laughter and the field blend of English and Spanish often heard in the vineyard.

The sun begins to warm our hands around ten, but we do not finish this field until the midday break.  Hand picking is laborious work, and we move to the south field after lunch.  Many of the Mission olives are already showing the discolorations from the frost, and we move quickly, using small plastic rakes and tarps to strip the more heavily laden trees of their fruit.  The first of the 1100 pound bins fills; all shapes and sizes of fruit, the colors ranging from bright lime green to dark winy purple to almost black.  We end the day around five, with a round of sodas, chips, salsa and chicharrones, pork rinds deep fried in their own lard, a by-product of the rendering process and a favorite snack of the crew.

The picking resumes the next morning, and, luckily, the temperature is about five degrees warmer, just enough, according to my partner, to keep the remainder of the green olives from spoiling before they are pressed.  He and I take on all of the small trees, carefully stripping them of all their fruit.  By early afternoon, all of the fruit is in, and we have almost filled two of the four large bins.  The crew departs, delighted to be finished early, as many of them are preparing to travel south to Mexico for their annual family holiday visits.  My partner and I caravan over the mountain to the press, and the second part of the annual process.

As it was last year, the press building is bone-chilling cold, the late afternoon sun already behind the ridge.  We have almost a ton of olives, and they are weighed, washed, and carried up the conveyor to the press.  As if my magic, a few hours later, the brilliant green stream of oil begins to dribble from the final separator.  We place a plastic cup under it, and then stand in a circle, sipping the pungent new oil.  The predominant flavors are those of leaves and grass, with a strong, underlying bitterness.  There is little evidence of fruitiness, and we will have to once again blend this oil with those of other producers in warmer climates, where the olives ripen more fully.  As we prepare to part ways, the big drum of oil is loaded on my partner’s truck, the bins are strapped down tightly to the trailer, and he begins the long drive back to his ranch in the Sierra foothills.  I securely belt down my gallon bottle of the new oil for the trip back to the coast, and for another year, this ancient process is completed.  The annual cycle of the farm comes to a close as the crop is gathered in.  The short days herald the season of dormancy for the trees, and I head home to a warm fire and a bowl of winter vegetable soup, drizzled with the new oil.

Zuppa Frantoiana (Tuscan Olive Mill Soup)

  • 1 ½ cup dried shell beans, soaked overnight (cranberrybeans are traditional)
  • 1 medium carrot, cut in chunks
  • 1 medium yellow onion, sliced
  • 1 stalk celery, cut in chunks
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1 bunch cavolo nero (lacinato or dinosaur kale)
  • 1 medium yellow potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 winter squash of pumpkin, peeled and cubed
  • 1 medium carrot, cut in large cubes
  • ½ teaspoon crushed fennel seed and/or fennel pollen
  • 6-8 slices rustic bread
  • 1 large clove garlic, peeled and cut in half
  • New olive oil (olio nuovo)

Drain the beans and place them in your soup pot with about 3 cups water to cover, the first carrot, onion and celery.  Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, covered; at a bare simmer until the beans are tender (you can use a crock pot for this step).  The time will depend on age and size of the beans, but will be around one hour.

Once the beans are tender, remove and set aside about ½ cups of the whole beans.  Put the remaining beans and vegetables, together with any cooking liquid, through your food mill and return to the rinsed-out pot.  Taste and add salt and pepper if desired.

In a saucepan, gently sauté the chopped garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil; when the garlic is softened but not browned, add to the pureed beans, along with the oil in the pan.  Strip the tough center ribs from the kale, and coarsely chop the leaves.  Add the kale, cubed potato, squash or pumpkin, and second carrot to the pot.  Again bring to a simmer, and cook gently, covered, until the vegetables are tender, then stir in the fennel seed and/or pollen, the reserved whole beans, and additional salt and pepper if you wish.

Toast the bread slices, and rub with the cut garlic.  When ready to serve, drizzle a liberal splash of new oil over the one side of each bread slice, and place in the bottom of your individual soup plates.  Spoon the hot soup over the bread, and add another dollop of new oil to the center of each serving without stirring it in.  Serve immediately.

 
 

Giving Thanks for the Harvest

The tables at our local farmers’ markets are full of the bounty of the fall harvest, but the chilly winds and the occasional showers remind all of us that we are inexorably marching toward winter.  Here on the Mendocino Coast, our wet winter weather makes gardening and farming difficult at best, and next to impossible in some locations.  Those of us who produce and consume local food are challenged to find locally grown vegetables through the long slow season.  I picked up a flat of San Marzano tomatoes that will finish ripening in my warm pantry and then be processed into the rich red sauce that my Italian grandmother used to make.  There is something vaguely comforting about seeing the rows of jars line the shelf, each containing a taste of sunshine at its heart.

This year, the potent storm of economic uncertainty hovers on the horizon.  A friend’s mother tells stories of growing up on a truck farm in southern California’s Riverside County during the Great Depression.  She says that the family always had enough to eat, because they usually couldn’t sell all the vegetables they produced.  She told of stewed tomatoes served over baking powder biscuits, a fond memory of a supper long passed, and we all wonder what we will face in the coming winter months.  A chef friend of mine calls it “chipmunking,” the storing away of food and supplies in anticipation of scarcity.  Today, more than ever, I consider all the sources of food inside that magical circle of our local economy.  Ours is an economically challenged community, and many food choices are driven by price alone.  In Mendocino County, our average wage is well below that which would support the purchase of a median priced home.  The hospitality, fishing and forestry jobs that remain here are largely seasonal, so winter affords little in the way of luxury here.

In these lean times, our focus turns to economics on a smaller scale.  How do we create a sustainable local food system?  How much can be produced here, and which goods must come from farther away?  With transportation costs spiraling out of control, what is the true cost of the cheap foods we have become accustomed to in our sprawling industrial food system?  As Americans, we have become spoiled by too many choices.  I remember returning to California from my first trip to the Italian countryside.  I wandered the well stocked aisles of the supermarket and my head literally ached from the overwhelming quantity of food and other goods.  As we drove past an auto mall the other day in Santa Rosa, I was struck by the absurdity of the rows and rows of gleaming automobiles, not unlike the rainbow of jars, bottles, bags and boxes that line the supermarket shelves.  I longed for the simplicity of the small grocers and itinerant street markets of rural Tuscany.  Even without all of this bounty, I never felt that my choices were in any way limited.  In fact, the opposite was true.  The robust porcini mushrooms; only eight or so in the box, would be sold out by day’s end, and that somehow made them more precious.  Anything I would cook using them would be a celebration of their fleeting seasonality. 

Many philosophical traditions talk of “daily bread,” the idea of having what we need as opposed to what we desire.  I realize that, while there is comfort in knowing that the freezer and the pantry are filled to bursting, there is also a comfort in the simplicity of having only to focus on today.  Today, I will not worry about the global economy.  I choose not to ruminate on whether the shelves of the supermarket will be full or empty in the coming months.  I choose to celebrate the abundance of the harvest and eat well today, with an abiding gratitude for what I have.

 

 
 

The Approaching Harvest

My partner and I meet up in a leaf-strewn parking lot on the outskirts of town last week and hit the road together.  The change of season and the upcoming frost signals the time to visit our farmers and select a date for this year's olive harvest.  The cool damp morning dictates barn jackets and boots, as we plan to walk the damp orchards, evaluating the ripeness of the fruit.  The Tuscan varietal olives for our L'Autunno blend are grown on a variety of small, family farms and vineyards scattered across the Mendocino and Sonoma wine country.  Each group of trees occupies its own microclimate, and as with wine grapes, must be harvested according to the correct degree of ripeness.  Here in this part of northern California, the olive harvest is often squeezed into the last week of November and the first week of December.  Up here, we need to leave the fruit on the trees long enough to develop a workable percentage of ripe fruit, which, due to our mild climate often means we barely beat the first hard frosts.  Last year, the frost caught us at our home ranch, Shooting Star, in the Anderson Valley.  Luckily, we were able to get the last of the fruit in and over the hill to the press in time, with little or no damage.  We pressed at seven that evening, and the steel building housing the press itself was cold and drafty.  Bundled in sweaters and jackets, we soaked in the pungent and somehow warming aroma of the new oil.

We walk together with the first farmer, up and down the rows of trees.  A misty rain falls as my partner pulls both ripe and green fruit from a sampling of the trees and cuts each olive open with a small knife.  Squeezing the pulp between his fingers, he carefully evaluates the ratio of water to oil.  He touches the tip of his tongue to the pulp and smiles knowingly.  The sharp bitterness of the olives foreshadows the complex peppery flavor of the oil to come, a good sign given the relative ripeness of this fruit.  We each leave that afternoon with an unmarked bottle of the farmer's homemade pinot noir under our arms, and move on to the next farm.

When we decide on a date for the harvest, we schedule the press and call the crew bosses.  Since we still hand-pick our fruit, we need to make sure there are enough workers available to strip all the trees and deliver the fruit to the press before the day's end.  In order to produce the highest quality and most flavorful oil, the olives must be pressed within hours of picking.  Even in this cold, foggy weather, the olives will heat up in their large wooden bins and begin to ferment if left to sit too long.  Many of our farmers are so small that they produce less than a ton of olives each; so we must also coordinate the picking and delivery so we can take advantage of the economies of scale at the press.  The logistical dilemma of delivering most or all of the fruit to the press at the appointed time is a tap dance of sorts, but somehow, each year, we manage to pull it off.  It is an annual reunion, as each farmer arrives with fruit, and stories of the growing season are exchanged as we stand around in the gathering darkness.  Some of them will be paid for their fruit in finished oil, and look forward to tasting this year's blend.

Late in the day, we return to the parking lot and I climb back into my truck for the trek back over the mountain to the coast.  My partner has farther to go, crossing the mountains and valley to the east to return to his own ranch in the western Sierra foothills, where the harvest and pressing are already in full swing.  We will return in early December to repeat this ritual that spans generations.  Olives are a crop for the long haul, and the trees that we harvest from this year will continue to produce fruit long after we are gone.  The air is crisp, the light is slightly golden, and the grape vines stain the hillsides with their reds, oranges and golds.  The seasons come and go, the fruit ripens, and the rhythms of the farm continue for yet another year.

 
 
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