For all the passion and publicity that’s been showered on locally grown food, I’ve been struck by something missing from the farmer’s markets in San Diego County: olives grown here and olive oil processed from them. This has mystified me, considering that the first olive trees in North America were planted in San Diego. A hundred years ago, this area was reported (by the Los Angeles Times) to be the largest producer of olive oil in the United States. What happened?
My recent visit to the Temecula Olive Oil Company ranch provided some answers. Temecula, of course, is not in San Diego County, but it’s so close to that border (on the Riverside County side) it’s no wonder people blur the boundaries. The drive from Pacific Beach to Temecula’s Old Town takes about an hour; the olive ranch, in the Aguanga Valley, is another half hour or so to the east. It’s an idyllic place, at the foot of rugged mountains that were still bearing patches of snow on the day I visited. Besides the groves of exuberantly healthy looking olive trees, wildflowers, grapes, and other plants appeared to be thriving in the intense sunshine.
Thom Curry, the ranch’s general manager, led me and other visitors to a shaded patio where he held court. He explained that his wife Nancy and her sister had started the company around 2001, with the aim of producing some of the world’s finest olive oil. To that end, Curry had won certification from the International Olive Oil Council as a Master Taster; he sits on the California Olive Oil Council’s Taste Panel. He told us that the vast majority of imported oil sold as cold-pressed and extra virgin is neither, but rather an indiscriminate blend of oils from all over Europe. In contrast, olive oils that truly do meet the international standards taste extraordinary. We confirmed this by sampling several of the Temecula products — a light, buttery tasting oil made from black late-harvest olives; a stronger tasting one (more grassy and peppery) made from green olives collected early in the fall, plus several oils infused with wonderful flavors: basil, blood orange, roasted garlic, hickory smoke, and habanero pepper. Some we mixed with artisanal vinegars also produced on the ranch: vanilla/fig balsamic, pomegranate balsamic, and others.
We didn’t dip these in bread but rather drank them out of little cups, which seemed less strange after Curry pointed out that olive oil is actually a fruit juice (the fats skimmed off the juice of the fruit of the olive tree). It’s extra virgin if that fruit has been been pressed within 24 hours of picking; if no heat is used in the pressing process, the best flavor results.
I asked Curry about the disappearance of olives from San Diego’s agricultural bounty, and he pointed to a couple of factors. When the Panama Canal opened in 1915, imported Italian oils became much more competitive. A more recent blow came from the olive fruit fly, which infests the fruit with worms.
After visiting the ranch, I found a 2008 article published in the Journal of San Diego History that told me much, much more about the rise and fall of the San Diego County olive industry. Local horticultural historian Nancy Carol Carter presents evidence that the first olive plants were brought to the New World (Peru, specifically) in 1560, and by the late 1700s Thomas Jefferson was among those touting the wonders of olives. Contrary to popular belief, Carter believes Father Junipero Serra didn’t bring olive trees to California, but rather one of his successors at the San Diego Mission (sometime between 1784 and 1795). Oil from them was being pressed by 1803, and by the 1860s, oil made from olives picked in San Diego, San Fernando, and San Gabriel was being compared favorably with Italian oil from Florence. In the years that followed, olive boosters and would-be profiteers promoted the trees as agricultural gold mines. Reading Carter’s account of all this reminded me of subsequent California bubbles involving eucalyptus trees and Internet stocks. Gullible would-be growers “placed trees in the wrong areas, gave them poor care, improperly pruned, or planted varieties not fully tested,” writes Carter. Many failed; some on a grand scale.
Out at the Temecula ranch, something very different is obviously going on. Curry described an approach to controlling the olive fly that seems post-organic — involving not just the avoidance of pesticides but also a deep understanding of the ecology of the trees and their pests, along with close attention, and a multi-pronged approach to intervention. It also helps, the general manager acknowledged, that the flies die when temperatures approach the 100-degree mark. Apparently that’s common throughout the summer.
I’m not sure I’d make another trip to the ranch in that heat, but Curry’s description of the cooler harvest activities sounded so enticing, I’ve marked my calendar to check in September on what’s happening when. I also don’t have to go that far to buy the oils. Retail outlets sell it on Cedros Avenue in Solana Beach and in the Fiesta de Reyes in Old Town.