Dining: Stop the Presses
Time has stopped. The hurly-burly of modernity is far behind us as we sit on the terrace of our villa at the Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, Calif. The only sound is the muted whir of a distant golf cart carrying guests to the spa. Appropriately, the walkways between the villas are shaded by olive trees, the age-old symbol of tranquillity, contemplation, and eternal verities.
Or so it used to be. Here in Northern California, the humble olive has Bay Area trendsetters in a frenzy. “Olive oil is the new wine,” says local writer Peggy Knickerbocker, author of Olive Oil: From Tree to Table. “People who planted vineyards 10 years ago to make their own wine are ripping them out and planting olive trees to make their own olive oil.”
The olive oil craze lends a whole new sense of lubricity to social gatherings, says San Anselmo attorney John Baulis. “People are bringing their own private brand of olive oil to dinner parties. You’ll hear them discussing their oil’s color, nose, and delicacy the same way they do with a Cabernet or Chardonnay.”
On community crushing days in Glen Ellen, Petaluma, Healdsburg, and Mill Valley, the place to be is the local olive press, where neighboring epicures gather to have their homegrown harvests converted to oil. “It’s just like in the little villages in Italy, Spain, or Greece,” says Shari DeJoseph, orchard manager at the McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma. “Only more upscale.”
Olive groves are hardly new to California; they have speckled the state’s topography since the days of the early Spanish missionaries. But olive oil remained merely a comestible commodity until the late 1980s, when software entrepreneur Ridgely Evers, a devotee of things Tuscan, began planting olive trees that he had imported from that region of Italy to produce oils under his own personal DaVero brand. Producing one’s own olive oil gained greater social panache in 1991, when former San Francisco Chronicle chairman Nan McEvoy purchased a 550-acre ranch in Petaluma. “After I bought the land I found out it was zoned for agriculture,” says McEvoy. “I decided to import olive trees and make oil because I’d always brought some back with me from Italy.”
Unlike wine, says DeJoseph, olive oil should not be aged. When consumed fresh, it can reduce LDL, or undesirable cholesterol, while boosting HDL, desirable cholesterol. This, says Bernard Chirent, executive chef at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, is why people in his native southern France are so healthy. “We use olive oil in everything.” To prove it, he created a light degustation comprising a tartare of tomatoes with California crushed olive oil, asparagus with organic California lemon olive oil, guinea fowl with sun-dried tomato olive oil and vinegar, and, as a denouement, a delectible orange olive oil ice cream. And as we had discovered earlier at the Fairmont’s bar, the uncrushed olive is a delightful addition to a dry martini.