The 2015 olive harvest began on a warm Sat. morning on Oct. 10, that turned into an unseasonably hot day. The harvest was 2 weeks earlier than the previous year, and 3 weeks earlier than in prior years. About 25 volunteers showed up bright and early to roll up their sleeves, lay down tarps and begin stripping the olives off the heavy fruit-laden branches. Some pickers preferred the over-the-shoulder picking baskets, others formed teams of 3-4 and tackled one tree at a time. Moving up and down the 15%-20% slopes provided a tough workout but I heard nary a complaint (except for the cry of "when's lunch!??). Once a tree was complete, the olives would get rolled into 45lbs crates and hauled up to the storage area. My 82-year old father had the task of running the leaf-blower machine (patent-pending!). A nifty invention from a neighbor friend, the olives are unloaded into a gently sloped holding container, and as they slowly descend the ramp, a heavy GenAir blower blasts away the leaves, twigs and small particles, leaving just clean fruit to drop below into a holding crate. The workers grew weary by noon (some at it since 7:30am) but I coaxed them into picking until 1pm when we feasted on paella (made by my lovely wife Sofie and my mother), oven-roasted tomato and goat cheese tarts, salads and sangria.
Forty crates later, the harvest was complete. Time of death, 7:05pm. The mill wasn't able to take the fruit that evening but fortunately, I was able to keep them in a cold room at 57F and take them the following morning. About 45 minutes away in the golden Capay Valley lies the Seka Hills Olive Mill and their state-of-the art Alfa Laval mill. After unloading the macro bin and crates, the Aussie worker weighed the fruit and started the mill. I got to talking with the mill operators, a trio of contracted Australians who go around the world working the olive harvest. We talked about the incredible Spanish area of Jaen, the largest olive growing region in the world, where they had worked the previous year. From start to finish the elapsed time took 1 hour 40 minutes. I could tell from the yellow-green/asparagus color that it would be an exceptional oil. Though only my 5th harvest, the color and smell of the oil is indication enough on the quality of the oil. The yield was quite high, coming in at 12.44 lbs of olives per liter of oil. The yield is predicated on so many factors, such as type of mill, olive varietal, ripeness of the fruit and malaxation time. I can control my varietals and ripeness and then it's up to the mill operator to optimize the oil yield. This is my 2nd time with Seka Hills and I've been extremely pleased with the way David Olander runs the operation. It is first-class all the way.
Now, it's time for the oil to settle so that all the micro-particles fall to the bottom of the container. When I bottle (mid-November), the oil should be clear (not cloudy) but perhaps with some very minor sediment present. As an olive producer, I've chosen to not filter the oil, believing that there the flavor quality is best when the oil is left "as is".
The other decision producers make is when to release the oil. In Italy, the new oil, called "olio nuovo", is considered the best of the best. The oil is at its peak freshness, which often comes with a spicy, peppery finish. For the uninitiated, olio nuovo is a slap in the face, a 6am wake-up call, sort of a bucket-challenge if you will. But to those who've tried it, there's really no comparison. It's nothing short of exceptional and if you've never heard an angel sing...trust me!