When you think about olive oil, you probably think about Spain, which grows and produces the majority of the world’s olive oil, or of Italy, Greece and a handful of other Mediterranean countries where olive oil is produced. You probably don’t think about California, even though the Mediterranean climate of much of the state provides a great environment for planting olive trees and producing olive oil. California currently produces just 0.1% of the world’s olive oil and only 1% of the olive oil annually consumed within the United States. It might be a small number, but California olive oil is very accessible to locals and visitors to the state and many olive oil producers offer tours and tastings. Ojai Olive Oil is a great example. This is a family-owned olive orchard and olive oil producer in Ojai, California that offers free tours and tastings to visitors year round.
On a recent trip through Ojai, I made it a point to stop by Ojai Olive Oil and go to a tasting for myself. The farm offers visits by appointment during the week and has an open house policy on Saturdays, where you can drop in without calling ahead. The tours are run by Ron Asquith, the owner of Ojai Olive Oil, who starts out with a talk that offers great insight to olives in general, as well as great information about how the olives and grown, harvested and pressed into oil at his farm. Ojai Olive Oil has been around for just over a decade, but olive trees have been grown on that land for more than 130 years. There are more than 2000 trees in the grove, a mix of young trees and rejuvenated older trees that had been left untended for years. Like grapes used to make wine, there are a number of different varieties of olives grown to produce olive oil. Ojai Olive Oil growns Frantoio, Leccino, Nocelara del Belice, Pendolino, Columella, Kalamata and Lechin de Sevilla olives.
All of the olives grown here are picked by hand. There are mechanical means to pick olives and many farms have employed them with good success, but the terrain here around the farm is very rocky and steep in some places, making it just about impossible for machines to reach much of the orchard. During harvest, which typically starts in November, the freshly picked olives are pressed within just a few hours of coming off of the trees.
After we talked about the harvesting process, our tour moved into the barn where the olive oil mill is set up. All of the equipment is imported from Italy and it is state of the art – although there isn’t very much equipment filling the room! The olives are washed, pulverized – pits and all – and the oil, water and olive pulp are separated using a centrifuge. The oil collects in big barrels and it is ready to be bottled – as simple as that! They do all of their own bottling and labeling on site, and all of their oil is high grade extra virgin with an extremely low acidity (testing for acidity is done at specially certified labs and the cutouff for extra virgin is .8%; Ron said that most, if not all, of the Ojai Olive Oil they bottle tests at around or below .2%). Lower acidity means that the fruity notes of the olives stand out clearly, and extra virgin oils tend to be the best for dipping, making dressings and other uses where you really want to get the full flavor of the olive oil.
After viewing the press, it was time to visit the tasting room. I could tell that this was the part that most of the people on the tour – myself included – were looking forward to. They had set out bowls of bread cubes and tiny tasting cups in a room with a whole variety of oils to taste. There were five olive oils, including one certified organic oil, and five infused olive oils. Tasting with bread is the easiest way to do a quick oil tasting, but I like to sip the oils to get a more complete flavor profile, so I re-tasted my favorite oils using the small paper cups that were provided.
Personally, I thought that the organic oil had the cleanest flavor of all of the “plain” olive oils, but I was taken by the flavored oils even more than I was with the plainer options. The flavored oils were simply amazing and had a tremendous amount of flavor to them. They came in Garlic, Basil, Rosemary, Lemon and Mandarin and every one was bursting with both the added flavor and with the flavor of the olives. The Mandarin almost tasted like dessert and I could easily see using that in a batch of my favorite olive oil cake. They also had a selection of absolutely outstanding infused balsamic vinegars and some all natural soaps made with their olive oils.
Ojai Olive Oil is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Southern California. Ojai itself is a cute town to stay in, but it is only about an hour and a half outside of Los Angeles and an easy day trip to make from anywhere in the area. The tour and tasting are free (although I bet that you’ll probably leave with a bottle of oil either for yourself or as a gift for someone) and it is a great way to spend part of an afternoon. Most of the restaurants in Ojai use the oil in their kitchens, so if you end up spending some time in town you’ll see it used at least once or twice before you leave.
Ojai Olive Oil
1811 Ladera Road
Ojai, CA 93023