Branch to bottle
Sept./Oct. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Richard Green and Matt Salvo
Crafting olive oil is a family affair
Carole and Yancey Juergenson planted French olive trees at their Oakdale home as a way to keep busy in retirement. Now, they are selling the olive oil through their business, The French Olive.
At their Oakdale home near the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills, Carole and Yancey Juergenson might as well be enjoying life in the French countryside. The couple is surrounded by an orchard of French olive trees that, each fall, are loaded with plump fruit in hues of green, black and purple and destined for milling into olive oil.
"Working with your hands, working with the earth, working with plants—it's a good feeling," Carole Juergenson said. "There's a satisfaction in doing that."
About 10 years ago, after retirement and watching their children leave the nest, the Juergensons were faced with little to do.
"We needed an activity and growing olives for oil was something we could do as a couple. It was a new adventure," Carole Juergenson said. "I like it because it is a challenge and it's keeping our minds and bodies active."
Though small, the Juergensons' olive oil endeavor, a business known as The French Olive, is a close-knit affair shared with family, friends and fans of their unusual olive varietals that produce a mild, buttery extra virgin olive oil.
Carole Juergenson, in yellow shirt, enjoys harvesting olives with friends and family.
It all started in 2005, when the Juergensons planted French olive varieties, which they chose for their flavor, high oil content and ability to withstand freezing temperatures. The trees started bearing fruit about four years later.
"When we harvested our first little amount of olives, we're talking about a couple of 5-gallon buckets," Yancey Juergenson said. "You've got to wait for the trees to mature, so it is all part of the process."
He explained that during the growing season, the first sign of olives is at the spring bloom, when the trees have small, white blossoms. By mid-June, the olives have grown to pea size. Harvest typically occurs in October and November.
"It's pretty intense labor and it's pretty exciting," Carole Juergenson said. "All of the work that you've done for the year goes into harvest and making that oil."
The Juergensons make harvest a social event, inviting family and friends to lend a hand with an often messy, but rewarding job.
"It's a lot of good camaraderie," Carole Juergenson said. "A lot of visiting happens around the tree. Whoever you get buddied up with, your hands are busy and it makes the time go by quickly and you are doing something fun and purposeful."
Pickers sometimes use buckets, but more often pull olives from the trees and let them drop onto nets spread on the ground. Once nets are loaded with olives, teams carry and carefully set them into nearby bins. The Juergensons typically harvest between 2 tons and 4 tons of olives annually, with an average yield of 53 gallons of oil per ton.
Carole and Yancey Juergenson take their just-harvested olives to Jack Bozzano, left, owner of Bozzano Olive Ranch.
From orchard to oil
The olives are then transported to Bozzano Olive Ranch in Stockton, owned by Jack Bozzano, who grows Italian olive varieties and operates a custom mill. Each fall, Bozzano opens his mill to small-scale customers such as the Juergensons who can supply a minimum of 1,100 pounds of olives for processing.
"It's a lot of fun this time of year," Bozzano said. "We mill olives for people who have a few trees and then they get the oil and give it away to their friends or use it themselves."
On arrival, the olives are emptied onto a conveyer where leaves and other debris are removed. The mill uses a cold-press method, with no heat or chemicals, to extract the oil. Olives are washed and pulverized—including the pits—into a paste-like consistency. The olive mash is spun at a high volume to separate solids, which are sold as cattle feed, and liquid, which is sent to a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water. The oil is then pumped into holding tanks, where sediment sinks to the bottom, and the oil remains there until bottling in February.
"We have milled the Juergensons' olives for about four years," Bozanno said. "They take tender loving care of their olives and make great, fresh olive oil. Unlike the Spanish and Italian varieties, they produce French varieties that are not commonly found in stores."
There are more than 400 growers and 75 olive varieties grown in California for olive oil production, according to the California Olive Oil Council, and many proprietary blends are unique to the state.
Olives are washed before being pressed for oil at Bozzano Olive Ranch, which opens its mill to small-scale growers.
Sealed and delivered
The Juergensons' oil is considered extra virgin, which means it is the first press of freshly harvested and undamaged fruit. The olives are pressed within 48 hours of harvest to ensure freshness. In addition, oil that goes into each bottle of The French Olive is tested annually and labeled with the harvest date. As a result, the bottles earn the California Olive Oil Council seal, which confirms it meets the standards to be labeled extra virgin. (See story below.)
The French Olive oil is sold online and at specialty food markets and cooking stores, and used by Bay Area chef Philippe Chevalier at his French restaurant, Chevalier. The Juergensons say their oil is ideal for dipping, salad dressings and finishing chicken, seafood and pastas. They sprinkle it on the expected—such as salmon and pizza—as well as the unexpected.
"It is good on everything, including ice cream," Yancey Juergenson said. "You add a little salt first, then the olive oil over the salt and that gels the oil and makes a good topping for vanilla ice cream."
The Juergensons are not alone in their love of milling olives into oil. Paul Onitsuka, who during the week handles human resources for a global manufacturing company, creates extra virgin Three Ponds Olive Oil from olives that he and his family grow in the foothills of Calaveras County.
"I have my weekday, crazy job and it's very exciting, but then I use the weekend to put myself to a more positive, productive and sort of calming thing," Onitsuka said. "Many of my colleagues say, 'You're crazy, you're going to work in the heat and out in the country?' But I enjoy it. I find peace just working on my olive trees, pruning, weeding—all of that kind of mundane stuff."
Onitsuka started with a few trees and expanded to 500 trees of Tuscan olive varieties. Last year, he harvested a couple thousand pounds of olives, which produced about 40 gallons of oil.
He has had a lifelong interest in the outdoors and organic food, he said, and wanted to do something productive with his land.
"So we started the olive oil venture," Onitsuka said. "There's a whole group of local growers that I'm friends with. I pick and harvest on my own, but my other friends have banded into a consortium of like six or eight different families and they all press together. We have a friendly competition, and that's always fun to do."
Those who help the Juergensons during harvest are invited to taste the fruits of the labor, including, from left, Alek Majtenyi, Debbie Juergenson and Crystal Raski.
What to know about extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil, often referred to EVOO, should smell and taste fresh and have fruity notes, according to Dan Flynn, executive director of the University of California, Davis, Olive Center. It may have bitterness and spiciness too, he added, which are indicators of healthful antioxidants.
"As a consumer, you want to get the freshest juice you can find," Flynn said. "But we have found there is a lot of oil on the shelf that is not very good."
What should you look for when shopping for olive oil? Flynn suggests the following:
Seasonality is important. Examine the bottle for a harvest date. If there is none, look for a best-before date that is at least 15 months away.
- Dark-colored containers,
- such as bottles or tins, protect the oil from light. However, don't assume that just because the oil is in a dark bottle, it is good.
- Check that the label carries the California Olive Oil Council seal, which assures that the oil is extra virgin grade, grown in California and from the most recent harvest. To earn the seal, olive oil must pass various chemical analysis standards and be sampled by a trained taste panel each harvest season.
- At home, store extra virgin olive oil away from light, air and heat—and not in the refrigerator.
The Golden State has mandatory standards for olive oil that are the strictest in the world, Flynn said.
"California is trying to set itself apart by raising the bar for olive oil. That's a pretty good guarantee of quality," he continued. "The two main reasons people buy olive oil, based on surveys that we've done and others, are flavor and health; you get more of each when the oil is fresher."