An Oil that Deserves Olive Your Love

When my friend Laura Martin told me about a locally produced olive oil she recently tasted and wrote about, I took note.  Please welcome her as a guest author.

Laurie Schuler-Flynn strongly urges that you take that precious bottle of fancy olive oil out of your cupboard and use it. Now. And you should listen to her—she’s an expert. In addition to serving on the taste panel for the U.C. Davis Olive Oil Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute, she and business partner/co-worker/long time cohort Amy DelBondio are founders of Hillstone Olive Oil in Yolo County, the producer of stellar extra-virgin olive oils.

Laurie Schuler-Flynn and Amy DelBondio

“Olive oil is not something you save for a special occasion and age like wine,” she enthusiastically warns. “The quicker you use it the better—you’re going to get the most flavor out of it and that’s what it’s for.”

Schuler-Flynn remembers her grandmother—an Italian immigrant who grew up during the Depression just outside of Davis—telling stories about the family picking olives from along side the road and the old stone press her uncle used to make olive oil.

“I used to tell her, ‘I want to be able to make olive oil like that!’ She’d say, ‘Oh no you don’t , we were really poor, but we did eat really well…’” laughs Schuler-Flynn, who met DelBondio at the Yolo County Agriculture Department, where the two biologists still work as agriculture inspectors.

With a shared love for authentically good food, the two future farmers took courses through the University of California extension in Sonoma, spearheaded by Paul Vossen, a guru of the California olive oil industry. In 2004 (and with Grandma’s blessing) they planted 2,000 trees on a little patch of vacant land on Schuler-Flynn’s parents’ ranch northwest of Woodland. Her grandmother died one week short of her 98th birthday, just after the olive trees were planted.

On the Hillstone Olive Oil site Schuler-Flynn and DelBondio passionately describe their various oils with terminology derivative of master wine sommeliers—“fruity and full flavored”; “lingering, pleasing pungent peppery finish”; “flavors of green herbs, grass, green apples and artichoke”; “subtle overtones of floral, banana and strawberry.”

“People are used to different flavors of oil but not very flavorful oil,” said DelBondio. “We feel that the oil we make is really representative of the olive fruit and it has a fantastic flavor.”

In addition to their award-winning Arbequina and Arbequina-Koroneiki blend oils, Hillstone will feature several new products this season, including a rare treat for olive oil aficionados: Olio Nuovo—oil that is bottled immediately after pressing, and is the freshest possible extra-virgin olive oil you can find with an intense, pleasantly bitter taste. If not consumed while it is still young, though, it will become regular olive oil in a short time.

From help with marketing to handpicking olives right off the branches at harvest, family, friends (and husbands!) play an important role in keeping this little olive farm afloat. A small crew is hired to help harvest, but the majority of the work—irrigating, weeding, harvesting—they do themselves. Both are extremely picky as to how their oil should taste—preferring a greener tasting oil with a peppery pungent flavor—and opt for harvest in mid-October, comparatively early to some other varieties that may be picked clear into January. (This year’s cool weather actually delayed harvesting until the third week of November.) The olives are processed at an olive oil mill in Oroville, where every bottle is marked with a harvest date—not a bottling date as a lot of producers do.

DelBondio and Schuler-Flynn distribute the oil to Nugget markets in Yolo county and the Sacramento region as well as to boutique stores in the Napa Valley and the Bay Area. They also ship to specialty stores in several states and manage online sales from their site. Local restaurants that use Hillstone olive oil include Grange and Mulvaney’s Building and Loan in Sacramento, and Tazzina Bistro in Woodland.

Hillstone olive oils have won several gold medals at the Yolo County Fair California Olive Oil Competition and the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition. Their blend earned the prestigious 2009 Best of Show and a 2008 Best of Class for a robust extra-virgin olive oil at the Los Angeles competition, and their Arbequina oil won gold in 2009 and 2010 at the newly formed California Olive Oil Council competition which is open only to members.

“We’re not a big producer that’s just making gallons and gallons of oil,” said DelBondio. “We’re a small farm and if we didn’t like the product we make, we wouldn’t sell it. Educating people in this country about olive oil is a big hurdle and we need to get people used to really good types of oil.”

Grandma would be proud!

Laura Martin is a writer, photographer and designer based out of Sacramento.  You can contact her at lauramartinwrites@sbcglobal.net.

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