Paul Durant opens up a small door on the top of the crusher & malaxer of his olive mill and an intensely grassy smell immediately fills the area. Inside, hundreds of pounds of Tuscan olives from the Reddings in Salem, Oregon are being smashed, pit and all.
This is the Durants’ 7th season of milling olives at their Oregon Olive Mill at Red Ridge Farms in Dayton, Oregon. They harvest olives from the 13,000 trees they have on site and supplement with some they bring up from Northern California. They also process olives from other Pacific Northwest growers. The Oregon Olive Mill is the only facility of its type in the state; this year, Paul expects the mill’s total production to be 15,000 L, substantially up from the 10,000 L produced in 2013. Considering how finicky the trees are, and factoring in the dramatic fluctuations Oregon climate, this is clearly a labor of love.
We’re at the Oregon Olive Mill to learn more about the olive milling process and, of course, to taste the oil. Libby Clow, Olive Oil Program Ambassador, is leading the experience. She has her Masters of Food Culture and Communications from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy, specializing in cured meats, wine, cheese and olive oil. Sounds like she knows her stuff (and probably knows how to have a good time).
“Grow grapes for your children and olives for your grandchildren” – an old Italian saying
In front of us are four small blue glasses, each containing a variety of oil from the 2013 season. In addition to Oregon Olive Mill’s oil selection there is a small taste of a commodity oil sample, a bottle of bubbly water, a glass of pinot noir, some apple slices with lemon and salt on them and a plate of baguette. Libby explains she’s going to take us through “a pretty formal tasting” and starts explaining what that all means. I guess I’ve never considered one could go through tasting olive oils in a similar capacity to tasting wines. Here we go.
Libby begins by pointing out the distinguishing characteristics in the oil: fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. We start by smelling the commodity oil. It smells like olive oil, albeit faintly, with no distinct characteristics. We’re then directed to hold the small cup and twist it in our palm to create friction and warm the oil, while trapping the aroma with our other hand. We lift our hands and smell the oil again. As the oil has warmed, the aroma is more pronounced. Next comes the actual tasting of the oil: “take a small sip and then slurp the oil in your mouth as you would when tasting wine.” The commodity oil is light in flavor and no fruitiness or bitterness- pretty run of the mill, if you will.
The varietals of oil we tasted from the Oregon Olive Mill are Arbequina, Koroneiki, Tuscan and Frantoio. We’re wondering why these glasses are blue- wouldn’t you want to see the color of the oil? Libby explains that the intention is actually to disguise the color of the oil, to take the psychology of seeing the color out of it. We repeat the whole process of tasting each of the oils: smelling, rubbing and warming the cups, smelling again, and then tasting. Each of them is so different: the Arbequina is buttery and soft with a light peppery finish, while the Tuscan is more vegetal and has an intense arugula bite at the end. Something to consider when choosing which oil you’re using for which application: cooking the oil or adding salt will soften the bitterness.
As we’re tasting, Libby shows us a bottle of very cloudy olio nuovo that was just milled. She explains that in this form the oil is the most healthy and flavorful it will ever be. However, the particulates make it unstable and the shelf life is only 6 months. The oil will sit for 60 to 90 days and the particulates will settle and clear, then it will be filtered and racked. The resulting product will last for about two years, especially if handled and stored properly. The Oregon Olive Mill stores their oil is 55 gallon drums, bottling it to fulfill the demand in their own gift shop and outside retailers; self-distribution ensures proper handling and high quality.
We wrap up the tasting with some olive oil-laden dishes: cheese and olive oil, salumi and olive oil, brussel sprouts and chanterelles with olive oil and even olive oil cookies. And, of course, more pinot noir. Not a bad way to spend a beautiful fall afternoon in the hills of Oregon.
Olio Nuovo Festa at the Oregon Olive Mill
November 21, 22 & 23 from 10 am to 4 pm
“Come celebrate the completion of the year’s olive milling season. This is the first chance to taste and purchase our brand new olive oil. Olio Nuovo will be paired with some delicious appetizers and wine. Tours of the olive mill will be offered all day. This is a complimentary event and no reservations are required.”