I have been wine tasting at a vineyard in France, port tasting in Portugal, and beer tasting at the best brewery in Milwaukee. Tourism for food – and drinks – is a big part of my travel life, and having a small progression of different flavors to taste is a wonderful way to gain appreciation for something.
Travel borders on impossible right now, with even domestic itineraries feeling unsafe, and so unfortunately most of those experiences are likewise difficult to have. But tucked into the small town of Ojai, only 90 minutes or so from Los Angeles, I was able to have an experience that rivals any of those. Standing in the shade of trees more than a century old, I enjoyed my first guided olive oil tasting.
Ojai Olive Oil sits on roughly 40 acres of olive orchards, containing about 2,000 trees across eight varieties of olives. Our guide for our free tour and tasting, Ron Seba, tells us that while there is only a single species of cultivated olive in the world, there are more than 700 varieties worldwide! (Most oils here are made of multiple varietals – think similar to red or white blends in the wine world, though we do try a single-varietal of French olives that is incredibly light.)
Olive trees with the mountains behind make for a lovely scene!
Our experience begins with a wonderful talk by Ron, and concludes with a guided tasting – and then time in the shop, of course! Olive trees were brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s, and some of the trees here can actually trace to those first orchards in the Santa Barbara area. Underneath those trees, Ojai Olive Oil has picnic tables and hammock chairs, and encourages visitors to bring their own lunches as part of the experience. There is even a shaded enclosure for dogs while their owners are inside, complete with water and soft leaves to lie down in.
Ron tells us that olives are unlike pretty much any other fruit – and yes, they are a fruit. They cannot be eaten directly off the tree, so overwhelming is their bitter taste. To eat the fruit itself, they must be brined. However, no brine is necessary when being “pressed” for oil. I use the quotation marks because here at Ojai Olive Oil, and in many places around the world, olives are no longer pressed. Rather, oil is extracted via a centrifuge, and olives go from tree to oil extraction within four hours!
The growing season of olives starts in April with blooms, similar to those of an orange tree. Fruit forms in May, and harvest can be anywhere from November to early January depending on the year. Olives are picked by hand, and a large tree will produce 180-200 pounds of fruit in a year. As the olives ripen, they darken in color. However, both less and more ripe fruit will be picked at the same time, and all pressed – the term is still used even though the method is different – together. The remaining bits of fruit and pit are used as mulch, completing the cycle.
A photo of Ron’s photo of olives after the harvest
It takes approximately 60 pounds of olives to produce a single gallon of olive oil, with darker, more ripe olives being higher in oil content, but lower in anti-oxidants, hence the combining of both into the oil. Ron takes us inside to show off the machinery and bottling room, an operation that can be run by very few people. Olive oil, like wine, must be kept cool, so temperature control is key. Likewise it doesn’t do well with sun, so dark bottles are used.
The gift shop is next, featuring California’s most important addition to the olive oil universe: flavored oils. Some oils are infused with herbs, others with citrus. All are delightful. We taste four oils and two balsamic vinegars, a carefully curated progression from lighter to bolder in flavor, slurping small sips from little paper cups, water between tastes to cleanse our palates. It is a delightfully pleasant experience, although best done with food as oil on an empty stomach can lead to a bit of discomfort. Fortunately we brought granola bars for just such an issue!
Laden with gifts for friends and family, we leave, promising to be back. Ojai Olive Oil is open daily from 10-4, and guided tastings are completely free, so there is nothing stopping a quick return. Visitors are even welcomed during the harvest, something that would be a treat to see. I can’t recommend this experience highly enough, and hope that next time I see you there!
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