Networking and mentorship make a difference for small producers, from grove adopters to a former governor
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
It’s a cool December day in 2017, not long after Olga Orlova’s Santa Rosa home burned down in the Tubbs Fire. The young Capay Valley olive oil producer is preparing for a long day of milling when her phone rings. A voice on the other end says, “This is the governor of California, Jerry Brown.”
“I thought it’s a joke,” says Orlova.
After a polite “Hello, Governor of California Jerry Brown, how can I help you?” she learns that Brown’s 140 olive trees—recently transplanted to Mountain House, his ranch in Colusa County—have ripe olives. Olga Orlova, as he’s been told, is the person who can help him.
To fully appreciate the irony of a powerful national leader calling a young, recent immigrant for advice, let’s jump back a decade as Orlova is enjoying her first career developing recipes for a milk company in her native Russia. She longs to travel, and by 2010, she’s in San Francisco exploring logistics for becoming a mushroom farmer or perhaps a brewer.
On an evening in 2013, she’s in Santa Rosa, barbecuing for friends, and waxing eloquent on how a good grilled steak needs only salt, pepper, and olive oil, when someone mentions that olive oil is becoming a big thing in California.
“Like, big thing in California, what do you mean?”
“They make olive oil here, and right now the market has started growing in the U.S.”
“But isn’t it a Mediterranean product?”
“Yeah, everywhere wine grows, olives can grow.”
While the group tucks into their unctuous olive oil–slathered steaks, Orlova further queries her California ag–savvy friends enough to determine that coaxing the delicious oil from this Biblical tree fruit might be her true calling. Within two weeks she’s leapt over a chasm of innocence and charmed her way into the orchards and mills of esteemed local olive oil producers, plus labs and offices of sundry top-level researchers, testers, and administrators, and is well along in her launch of Olica, a boutique olive oil company.
Fast forward four years, and this budding entrepreneur has racked up awards for her olive oils and simultaneously established a strong reputation for helping other small growers mill their fruit into high-quality oil (or acquire equipment and know-how to mill their own). That’s when the governor calls.
“Honestly, we don’t know what we’re doing here,” she recalls Brown saying.
“I go to his place. We need to harvest now,” says Orlova, who knows that oil of superior quality, such as the governor expects, can only be achieved when the olives are at a perfect, subtly pre-ripe moment and are milled immediately upon harvest before any deterioration sets in.
“What time do we start?”
Brown is just heading out to give then-President Trump an aerial tour of the fire devastation, but four cheerful, young, casually clad people hanging around Mountain House—who turn out to be the governor’s security contingent—help Orlova harvest the olives. Back at Olica central, she mills the olives and bottles up the oil, affixing the governor’s Mountain House label.
While Orlova helps Brown learn about taking the product from tree to table, the two strike up a friendship. And when Orlova learns that he has it in mind to sell the bottles at Whole Foods, she has to break the sad news that being the governor of California paves no golden-green path toward getting this very limited supply of Mountain House olive oil out to the people of the Golden State via that particular venue.
Given the enduring resilience of the very long-lived, drought-tolerant olive tree and its enduring cultural role as a nurturer of humankind, it makes sense that an environmentalist governor might like to steward an orchard and pursue olive oil production in retirement. In fact, each person interviewed here was similarly attracted to the tree’s ecological story as well as to the abiding history of olive oil as a community enterprise.
And, of course, there’s always the matter of olive oil’s great taste.
The Drama and the Mystery
In 2011, Kathryn Tomajan, cofounder and producer of the Oakland-based Fat Gold olive oil company, was a 20-something graduate student studying food culture and communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, when she got tricked by a master Tuscan olive oil producer into tasting a rancid olive oil. She thought, “It’s good—it tastes like olive oil,” a misconception all too common among consumers inured to the off flavors of inexpensive, outdated, and possibly ersatz supermarket olive oils. Tomajan quickly learned the difference.
“I was really taken aback by the quality and adulteration scandals that are occurring globally in the olive oil trade,” she says. “That really was my hook into olive oil—the drama and mystery around it.”
Influenced in her thesis research by Tom Mueller’s then newly published exposé, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Tomajan also delved into emerging reports from the UC Davis Olive Center by researcher Selina Wang, who as a young and recent immigrant from Taiwan had driven all over California collecting supermarket samples of oils marked extra-virgin for the Center’s lab to analyze. The findings? “Reports said that many of our extra-virgin olive oils did not meet the extra-virgin grade standards,” says Wang. From her current seat as the Center’s research director, Wang has now turned her attention to analyzing similar standards that can assist across California’s food landscape in a time of change.
Tomajan’s quest to understand how the fraud problem could be addressed took her to Australia, a major world olive oil producer, which, as she describes, was then “several years ahead of California in establishing mandatory, industry-wide quality standards.” She went back again to apprentice with a small Australian milling operation staffed entirely by women. “I don’t think it’s normal anywhere in the world to have women actually running the mills and doing the difficult work of managing production,” she says.
To school her palate, Tomajan participated in the (now defunct) UC Davis Sensory Panel and then moved on to join the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) Taste Panel, where she continues to participate in its evaluations for producers seeking extra-virgin certification for its oils via rigorous lab and sensory testing. Three videos starring the convivial Tomajan on the COOC website are examples of her fast-developing role as a spokesperson for California olive oil.
In a discussion regarding Tomajan’s role in encouraging her peers, Orlova mentioned the series of personal/professional growth events Tomajan ran with three collaborators from 2011 to 2018 in locations around the country. Called Eat Retreat, the project encouraged participants working in many facets of food and agriculture to experience themselves as part of a community dedicated to strengthening the food system as a whole.
Olive oil presents many challenges for a small producer, among them how to afford land for an orchard, how to harvest and mill quickly and cleanly enough to win extra-virgin certification, where to mill if you can’t afford to buy your own equipment, how to market, and also how to convince consumers reaching for that cheap commodity supermarket oil that a small local producer’s product is worth the higher $20–$40 price tag. Sharing knowledge and resources is crucial to the endeavor.
Synergies in Adopted Orchards
In 2017, Tomajan was making olive oil alongside one of her Eat Retreat collaborators at Enzo Olive Oil Co. in Madera when the inspiration to start her own olive oil company came along. A landowner in the Alameda County community of Sunol had a mature olive grove going untended and offered to let Tomajan take over harvesting the fruit in trade for maintaining the orchard. While Fat Gold now sources olives from growers in diverse locations (much the way urban winemakers buy their grapes), during that first year in Sunol, Tomajan started learning firsthand about orchard management, harvesting, milling, packaging, and marketing, all of which require a small producer to develop many relationships with others in this labor-intensive business for it to be affordable. (Note: Now in year four, Fat Gold is finally paying small salaries to Tomajan and partner Robin Sloan.)
The notion of adopting a field or an orchard was lionized by veteran organic farmer, writer, and olive oil producer Mike Madison in “The Beginning Farmer’s Plight,” his Fall 2015 article for Edible East Bay. The story outlines how and why a landowning farmer heading toward retirement could (and should) bring young aspiring partners into the enterprise for the sake of imparting knowledge and keeping fertile land in its valuable agricultural usage. Young farmers Susan Ellsworth and Colin Dixon were his test case, and the couple now steward some of Madison’s mature, organically farmed olive trees to make their Flatlands olive oil. They share Madison’s 100% organic facility, including the mill and a certified organic kitchen, where Madison’s wife Dianne makes olive oil cosmetics.
Sowing Wild Poppies
In a lovely hollow of the Santa Cruz Mountains, sisters-in-law Jamie de Sieyes and Kim Null landed a grove adoption opportunity similar to Tomajan’s along with a mentorship like Ellsworth’s.
In 2016, de Sieyes was tiptoeing from early motherhood back into her marketing career just as her sister-in-law, Null, also a young mother, was developing a passion for agriculture that would later blossom into EatLocal.Farm, a virtual sales model she spearheaded for the local grower community. The sisters-in-law had always wanted to grow a business together when an opportunity appeared as if to fulfill their wishes.
“Just around the corner, a neighbor of ours has a beautiful olive orchard,” says de Sieyes, speaking of Chris Banthien, producer of the award-winning Olio del Le Colline di Santa Cruz, who planted her grove in 1996. “Having Chris be our mentor, that was the biggest piece of Wild Poppies coming into existence. It enabled us to work together and work near our homes, to work in our community, and to have an existing agricultural piece that was well nurtured and well cared for.”
Banthien trained the duo in orchard management and showed them how to harvest using large electric shaking rakes. They learned about milling and bottling by working alongside their miller, Greg Traynor of 43 Ranch in San Ardo, California. But of equal importance has been the way Wild Poppies was nurtured by the local farmers’ market in Aptos.
“[They] welcomed us as we transitioned from Chris’s brand to ours, and that was a key part of our business thriving that first few months,” says de Sieyes. The sisters-in-law have cultivated deep relationships with their customers, which include local tastemakers like Michelin-star chef David Kinch, who uses Wild Poppies Extra Virgin Olive Oil exclusively at his newest venture, Mentone in Aptos.
In this season when olive harvests have been light throughout most of California, the small supply of Wild Poppies’ 2020-harvest oil has been claimed almost entirely by Null’s EatLocal.Farm customers. “They kept us going this year after the restaurants closed down. My husband built a little mini barn next to the big barn where we can let customers come and pick up their olive oil and pick up their produce.”
Flavor is the Hook
If a bottle or can of extra-virgin olive oil from one of these small specialty producers might seem too dear for daily use, a cook interested in flavor (as well as health values) might consider what they could be missing.
“Most mid- to large-scale producers are trying to make a consistent, relatively neutral-tasting, all-purpose olive oil to appeal to the masses,” says Tomajan. Conversely, her work at Fat Gold, like that of all the producers in this story, is about “honoring the diverse olive varieties planted here in California and milling them in a way that brings out the best of each cultivar.” She’s talking about bringing out maximum flavor, which is more expensive to produce.
What is a cultivar? De Sieyes says the four young Wild Poppies children can pronounce the names of all the cultivars in their orchard…Ascolano, taggiasca, frantoio, Canino, leccino, maurino. The names reveal the cultivars’ Mediterranean origins, and each has been developed over many centuries to highlight distinct flavors. Part of the differing profiles comes from the mix and levels of polyphenols, the organic compounds found abundantly in plants, which, according to a 2018 National Institutes of Health abstract, “have become an emerging field of interest in nutrition in recent decades. A growing body of research indicates that polyphenol consumption may play a vital role in health through the regulation of metabolism, weight, chronic disease, and cell proliferation.”
On the table, an olive oil with high polyphenols is likely to provide a distinctly exciting pungency, which tickles the throat and can even make you cough. Try drinking some “neat,” as credentialed sensory testers do, or just drizzle enough onto a dish to see how a well-made oil adds layers of gorgeous flavor.
Olga Orlova describes her Olica Picual as having a “tomato herbaceousness.” Her Chiquitita offers a “stone fruit nose like apricot and cherry and herbs.” The Coratina, with its high 460 polyphenol level, displays that robust pungency along with a vivid grassy flavor that stays in the imagination for hours or even years after the meal.
When you purchase extra-virgin olive oil:
Always check the harvest date, since olive oil is a fresh product that does not keep well for more than a few months, depending on how it’s stored.
Keep it capped so it doesn’t oxidize.
Store it away from heat.
Protect it from light. Purchase only oil that’s packaged in an opaque container.
And a most important last piece of advice:
Explore the treasures from your local extra-virgin olive oil producers to discover all there is to enjoy and support. ♦
The Making of a California Olive Oil Culture (Edible East Bay, Winter 2012)
On the Cusp of Greatness: California's intensive olive oil industry (Edible East Bay, Winter 2010)
How to Cook a Steak with only
Salt, Pepper, and Olive Oil
There are lots of ways to cook a steak. This simple stove-top method from The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, California, is ideal for featuring a robust extra-virgin olive oil.
- A 1-inch-thick steak from your local butcher
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Cast-iron pan
Pull your cold steak out of the refrigerator. Rub all sides with olive oil and season well with salt.
Heat a bit of olive oil in a cast-iron pan on a high-heat burner. You want it very hot.
Lay the cold, seasoned steak in the hot pan and leave it for 2 minutes without touching or moving it. You want a nice crust to form. Flip the steak over and sear for another 2 minutes. Flip it again and cook for another minute. Follow with a final flip and another minute of cooking. This should yield rare to medium-rare doneness, so you could adjust the cooking time to your preference. If your steak has a fat cap, do this: Using tongs, press the fat against the hot pan for several seconds to render and crisp the fat.
Turn off the heat and immediately move the steak from the pan to a plate or cutting board. Let it rest for 5 minutes.
Finish the steak with a generous pour of extra-virgin olive oil. Be sure to cut your steak against the grain.
Celery Root and Leek Soup with Green Garlic Gremolata
Cori Goudge-Ayer, chef-partner at Persephone in Aptos, created this recipe to feature this season’s extra-virgin olive oil made by her neighbors at Wild Poppies.
For the soup
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil
- Pinch salt and black pepper
- 1 medium-large celery root, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces
- 2 leeks, washed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 2 bay leaves
- Juice of ½ lemon
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the gremolata
- 3 stalks green garlic, sliced ¼-inch thick on a diagonal
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil
- Pinch salt and black pepper
- 1 tablespoon white wine
- Zest of 2 lemons
- ½ cup chopped parsley
- 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
- Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Sweat the onions with the thyme in oil with a pinch of salt and pepper. Add celery root and cook for 2 minutes. Add the leeks, water, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Cook until the celery root is very tender, about 20–30 minutes.
Make the gremolata while the soup cooks: Sauté the green garlic in the neutral oil with a pinch of salt and pepper until tender. Stir in the white wine, cooking until wine has evaporated. Transfer green garlic to a bowl and let cool. Add the zest, parsley, and sherry vinegar. Combine and taste, adjusting seasoning as needed. Set aside.
Once the soup is cooked, remove the bay leaves and thyme stems. Add the lemon juice and ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil and pureé with an immersion blender until smooth. (If using a countertop blender, purée carefully in batches so the hot soup doesn’t explode up out of the blender.) Taste, adding more lemon juice, salt, and pepper as desired.
To serve, ladle the hot soup into bowls, top with the gremolata, and drizzle liberally with extra-virgin olive oil.
Birdie’s Meyer Lemon Salad Dressing
Roberta Klugman, recipient of the California Olive Oil Council Pioneer Award, might be our region’s best expert on how to appreciate local extra-virgin olive oil at the daily table. Her Meyer lemon vinaigrette is simple and adaptable. She says to always check the harvest date on the olive oil container and choose only the most recent harvest. If you use your olive oil frequently and liberally, you will not have outdated oil in your cupboard.
Makes enough to dress a salad for 4 people
- Juice of ½ medium Meyer lemon (approximately 2 tablespoons)
- 1 scallion, white part and as much of the light-green leaves as you like, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste*
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small clove garlic, minced or crushed
- 2 anchovy fillets, rinsed with water and dried
- 1 tablespoon fresh herbs such as basil or parsley, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated, high quality Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (highly recommended unless you have other cheese, such as a blue cheese, in the salad)
Juice the lemon into a small bowl and remove the seeds. Add the chopped scallion, a pinch of salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste plus the optional chopped garlic, anchovies, and herbs. Stir until well mixed. If using the optional ingredients, let macerate for a few minutes.
Add extra virgin olive oil to the lemon juice mixture just before serving the salad. Mix these ingredients until well integrated and the oil begins to emulsify. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss to coat salad greens.
As an alternative to lemon juice, you can use a high-quality red wine, balsamico, or champagne vinegar reduced to 1½ tablespoons. The juice of a Eureka lemon is also acceptable. If you are using a Eureka lemon but still want the Meyer lemon’s sweetness, decrease the amount of lemon and add orange or tangerine juice to make up approximately 25% of the citrus juice.
*When deciding how much salt to put into the dressing, consider all other salty ingredients like anchovies, olives, nuts, or cheese that you are adding to the dressing and salad.
Sauté of Baby Artichokes, Fava Beans, Green Garlic, and Spring Onions
Recipe by Sandy Sonnenfelt, member of the COOC Taste Panel
and former prepared foods manager at Market Hall Foods
“When these spring vegetables are in season, I enjoy leftovers of this sauté in a breakfast bowl with quinoa or buckwheat topped with feta and a poached egg.”
Serves 2–3 as a side or 4–6 with pasta
- 15 baby artichokes
- Juice of 2 lemons (Reserve 2 tablespoons for cooking.)
- 1½ cups shelled fava beans (approximately 1 pound unshelled)
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (plus more for drizzling on finished dish)
- 3–4 anchovy fillets, minced
- 2 stalks green garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 spring onion, thinly sliced
- Leaves from 6–8 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 cup chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon Marash chile or chile flakes
- Black pepper
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
To prepare the artichokes: Fill a bowl large enough to hold all the artichokes with water. Add the juice of 2 lemons, setting aside 2 tablespoons of juice for cooking.
Prepare artichokes by removing the tough outer leaves, so the tender green leaves are exposed. Cut off the tough upper tips of the leaves and trim away the bottom stem and remnants of the outer leaves at the base. Quarter each artichoke and place quarters in the acidulated water.
To prepare the fava beans: Set a medium pot of water on the stove to boil. Set up a bowl of ice water near the stove. Blanch the shelled fava beans for 20–30 seconds in rapidly boiling water. Immediately plunge the blanched favas into the ice water to stop the cooking. Once they are cooled, remove and discard the beans’ outer skin and set beans aside.
To prepare the dish:
Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the anchovies, green garlic, spring onion, and thyme leaves. Sauté on medium high until garlic and onion are fragrant and anchovies have melted into them, approximately 7 minutes.
Add drained artichoke quarters, stock, salt, Marash chile, a grind of black pepper. and the reserved 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes or until artichokes are tender. Add fava beans and keep pan at a low simmer for approximately 5 minutes.
Add a glug of extra-virgin olive oil and a grind of black pepper. Toss with Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
Olive Oil Carrot Cake with Seeds and Orange Zest
By Marykate McGoldrick of Sesame Tiny Bakery
The flavors of sweet spring carrots and fruity, peppery, extra-virgin olive oil come together in this versatile cake, which is equally good dressed up with whipped cream for a special dinner or served plain for a low-key snack with coffee or tea. The seeds can be omitted or replaced with chopped toasted nuts, and I love adding ⅓ cup of chopped poached prunes, soaked raisins, or soaked currants for a fruity version.
Makes one 9-inch cake
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup dark brown sugar
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil (I like Seka Hills Arbequina)
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons grated orange zest (about 1 large orange)
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup spelt flour (or sub in all-purpose flour, if you prefer)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1¼ teaspoons cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ginger
- ⅛ teaspoon cloves
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups (8 ounces) grated carrots (about 2–3 medium-size carrots)
- 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
- 2 tablespoons toasted white and black sesame seeds
- 2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds
Grease a 9-inch cake or springform pan with butter and line pan with a circle of parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350°.
Using a stand mixer, whisk eggs and sugars on medium high until pale and thick, 5 minutes. Mix in the olive oil, vanilla, and grated orange zest until combined. Sift together the flours, leavenings, and spices, and fold into mix. Then fold in grated carrots and seeds until fully incorporated. Pour batter into pan, smooth top, and bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Cool slightly before removing the cake from the pan and let it finish cooling on a rack. Serve plain or with whipped cream. If there’s some left over, it will keep well for a few days wrapped in foil on your kitchen counter.
Marykate McGoldrick’s pocket-sized Sesame Tiny Bakery showcases seasonal fruit and organic ingredients. In 2018, she started a monthly cake club popup at The Kebabery in Oakland, and as of April 2020, that has become a weekly collaboration to offer cookies and cakes for Kebabery customers.
“In the first few months of 2020, I was working on opening my tiny shop under the same roof as the new Kebabery at 2969 Shattuck Avenue. When Covid hit, everything came to a halt, and we all scrambled to figure out how to survive. I count myself lucky to weather these strange times by baking as much as I can. It is one of the few things that keeps me grounded. As I write this, we are just getting back into the new space and resuming construction.”