Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Olive Oil Fest

Fresh olives. 
The Oregon Olive Mill has an Olive Oil Festival every fall.  We were intrigued and decided to check it out.  We found ourselves in the heart of Oregon wine country. Red Ridge Farms, where the Oregon Olive Mill is located,  has been growing grapes and making wine for 41 years, and this is now their 6th year for growing olives. They are currently the sole large-scale producer of olive oil in the state. 

First, we visited the tasting room, where free samples of several varieties of olive oil and wine were being offered, as well as lovely Italian bread with various delicious toppings that were heavy on fresh olive oil. Next, we had a tour of the mill where they explained the olive oil extraction process in detail.  The olives are harvested by machine with a grape harvester. After they are harvested, the mill runs day and night for 3-4 days to catch the olives at their peak. After debris are removed, the olives are thoroughly washed and crushed, they are placed in a machine that separates liquids (oil and water) from solids.  The machine warms the olives up with warm water which is carefully maintained at 85ºF. The warmer the olives are, the more readily they will release their oil. However, at higher temperatures the resulting oil is degraded noticeably and can no longer be called "extra-virgin".  The extracted oil is separated from the water, and the oil is then placed in storage tanks. They reserve some of the new olive oil to be sampled at this festival.  

The oil has a very fine sediment left in it.  If the sediment remains for longer than 90 days, it will spoil, so it is left to settle to the bottom of the tanks and then removed before the oil is bottled for distribution.  The freshly made olive oil is really wonderful, with a very assertive olive taste.  But we'd never had a chance to taste it before since as a rule it is not sold in stores due to its short shelf life.  They were offering it for sale in small bottles with the advice that it should be used quickly (as if anyone could keep it around!). They shared a tip which truly surprised me for its  obvious logic- people really shouldn't cook with good olive oil!  I've certainly cooked with olive oil often, and was never warned against it in culinary school or any of the restaurants where I've worked.  But think about it...  if extra-virgin olive oil is carefully guarded from high heat lest its wonderful taste and aroma be degraded, does it make sense to heat it up in a saucepan?  Instead, they advised to cook with sparing amounts of an oil that keeps a very low profile, such as canola oil, and then to drizzle the good olive oil on after cooking.  

A portion of the mill.  All their machinery is imported from Italy.  They take very good care of it, as any delay in milling the olives could cost them their harvest and they cannot wait for replacement parts. 
The olive orchard.
Old mill stones once used for milling olives.

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