April 02, 2003
Apollo Olive Oil owner Steven Dambach has given us his blending notes on this year's harvest. Apollo has an advantage over many producers in that they have 37 varieties planted. With their own press available at any time, picking, pressing and blending can occur at any stage of ripeness. Besides using his own press, Steven has experimented with several Northern California commercial presses using stone mill vs. toothed grinder, 3 phase separation with recycled vegetable water vs. fresh, centrifugal final separation vs. gravity, etc. This sort of curiosity and research is what makes California olive oils so great.
At Apollo Olive Oil, we are very big on blending. My particular enthusiasm is for the variety of great olive oils that can be produced--lightly fruity, buttery, green and pungent, highly perfumed, strongly bitter—and how they interact with different kinds of food. We have many different varieties now in or approaching production, and our press has the capacity for small batching
Though we hardly ever see them in the US, there are some terrific oils made around the Mediterranean. And these oils have very different styles: softly fruity in Tarragona and Liguria, buttery in Nyons, highly structured in Perugia. Each region has its history, and this history makes for the occasional deep and sensitive miller. But it also makes for provincial thinking, and a lack of curiosity about other olive varieties and other styles of oil. Our passion is this exploration.
Now, California does have a modest history of oil-making, and it does have established varieties. These varieties can and do make interesting oils. But these varieties do not make, on their own, a truly world-class style. Our best oil variety, the Mission, has wonderful structural properties: good bitterness and strong, lasting pungency. But the Mission lacks a balancing fruit character. Ascolano and Sevillano can add a bit of perfume and some gentle fruit, and some millers (myself included) have constructed oils using small percentages of these varieties. Though they contribute something positive, however, both of these latter varieties are very expensive to mill (low oil yield) and not perfectly matched to the flavor requirements of Mission. Early experiments have shown that other varieties might combine perfectly with Mission to make a truly world-class oil.
We have 42 varieties of oil olives, imported from various places around the Mediterranean. The first of these were planted in 1997, and five of these varieties (Leccino, Frantoio, Salonenque, Picholine and Aglandau) yielded enough fruit this past harvest to make an individual batch possible. We are hopeful that an additional five to ten varieties will be sufficiently productive in 2003, and that we can set up more scientific trials to isolate flavor factors. We look forward to a day when we can clearly see which can contribute to the California blend, which can stand on their own, and which might create delicious combinations not yet seen around the world.
Our press facility is set up to make these explorations possible. Our stone mill processes from 300-370 lbs per batch (depending on moisture content of the fruit). This means that with small quantities of any given variety, we can make a controlled and specific sample of the oil that it yields. These samples are kept in separate stainless steel drums until we feel confident of their character, and are then used to construct final blends.
The Mission Variety
We begin pressing when color cues (of the skin and pulp) indicate what we call “early maturity”. In Mission, at least up in our foothill climate, this tends to happen in mid-November. The oil produced tends to have a strongly bitter character. It also tends to have excellent fruit flavor BEHIND the bitterness. We value this early oil because of its structural qualities (it lasts long in the mouth, and makes the oil very stable for the course of 18 months or so), because of its strong grassiness (and our organic customers are appreciative of antioxidant values), and because of the flavors which begin to emerge from behind the bitterness during the oil’s evolution.
The very first pressings of the season tend to have some less pleasant bitter characteristics, as though something is still not completely formed. But the moment that this passes is the optimum moment for strong, early Mission character. This year, this little window of opportunity was smaller than usual, primarily because these less pleasant bitters held on past the first phases of color change.
Most Mission producers press later, once the bitter has somewhat abated. The reasoning is that the American consumer doesn’t react positively to bitter, and that is hard to argue. But to my mind, it also bypasses the Mission’s finest qualities. By operating from a negative viewpoint (avoiding bitter), it yields an oil of little positive character.
Very late harvest Mission, though, reveals another strength of the variety, when it softens to the point where gentle, green-apple aromas emerge. We can usually capture some of these flavors/aromas in early January. This year, the bitter continued strong through our last pressing, which was January 21st. From what I have tasted of other late harvest producers, this is a general phenomenon. It is quite possible that these flavors emerged in February or March, and I would be interested to taste such an oil.
It was not just with Mission that our fruit showed a higher level of bitterness than we had seen in previous years. Ascolano and Sevillano held onto bitterness past the point where they contributed positive fruit (we therefore used very little of them in our final blends). But more than compensating for this fact was the overall increase in intensity of fruit flavor. Mission, Leccino, Salonenque, Aglandau, Frantoio and Picholine all showed strong and lovely fruit.
Climactic conditions no doubt contributed to fruit character, in ways we do not yet understand. Additional contributions were made by our milling practices, which continue to evolve. This year we were even more careful with inert gas (even closing in the stone mill), we racked more frequently, we used a peristaltic pump to move the oil, and we experimented with not centrifuging some batches (separating, instead, by gravity). All of these factors probably contributed at least a little to more flavor and texture extraction. (In no case, however, will they have contributed to higher bitterness.)
Our practice is to separate each batch into separate stainless steel drums. As the drums fill, we keep tasting them to see which can appropriately be combined. Batches of a similar character are pumped into a larger (1000 liter) tank. By this season’s end, we had three tanks mostly full--one with early Mission flavors, one with late Mission flavors, one with a highly fruity, buttery blend of French varietals—and 18 drums with what we call “blending elements”. Very early Ascolano filled two of these drums, our first production of Frantoio/Leccino another, a particularly aromatic batch of Salonenque another, and so on.
We started out with the idea of making a “Sierra Blend” based on the Mission, and a “Mistral Blend” based on French varietals. After all, we had won Gold and Silver Medals, respectively, in each of the last two years with these blends at the L.A.County Fair. We were also on the look-out for new possibilities should they present themselves.
Edward, the Blender
My enthusiasm for oil far outstrips the capacity of my sensory apparatus to make sensitive blends. The real blender is a fellow named Edward Schulten. Raised in Holland, the scion of a wine importing family, Edward went to Bordeaux in his youth to learn the craft of wine-making. His palate was so talented that he was lured away by fancy restaurants to serve as sommelier. He made a lot of money in big cities around the States, but eventually gave it up to do what he loved most: to make wine. Fortunately for me, he relocated here. Fortunate in two ways: his wine is always sold out to those “in the know”, and I fall into that category; and also because he is intrigued by my experiments in oil and is unfailingly generous with his help.
Here is how he goes about it:
In the early stages of production (through November), we meet after every day’s milling to sample the results. Edward thinks in terms of possibilities. If he particularly likes the flavors or quality of pungency in a day’s batch, he will ask me to go out and pick twice as much the following day. Similarly, he might ask us to shut down operations for a few days.
Once a number of barrels are filled, Edward sets up his tasting table. Once a week I bring fresh samples of each batch to his house (the smells are too confusing to do this work at the press). He sets them up in little cups and, with a syringe, takes measured amounts of each and begins to play.
When blending gets really serious in January, he can be seen with as many as forty sample cups arrayed like a control panel in front of him, and a complex chart which he makes scribbled notes on. He gets excited at this time, like a bloodhound on the trail. This is an extraordinary time of education for me, working side by side with him, discussing, arguing and taking the occasional nap (his stamina for this work far exceeds mine!). The final blends usually emerge in the dead of night. If in the clear light of the following day we still like them, they become our new oils.
A new blend for next year?
Leccino and Frantoio: Both picked in mid-November, yielded the typical tarry bitter of Tuscany, and lovely fruit flavor. This is highly encouraging, since it shows that the varietal character travels well to the Sierra Foothills. It is even more encouraging for the degree of fruitiness. Higher elevation olives in Tuscany tend to yield more fruit, and our hope is that our similar elevation will do the same. As expected, these varieties have their own uniqueness and so we do not add them to our Sierra and Mistral Blends. They will, in the future, most likely be released as their own, Tuscan-style product (this year’s production has already been consumed!)
Steven hosts a bi monthly gathering of California foothill olive growers and producers, usually on Sundays. Give him a call if you are interested in becoming a part of this passionate group.