… in French, literally means “soil”. Today it is nuanced to refer to products of a soil and more specifically those that are unique to a particular regional terroir.
This essay began simply enough but nearly spiraled out of control the more I learned about the person you are about to meet. As a writer sometimes the story finds you.
So, in August of 2012 I visited the annual Paso Robles Olive Festival. If you can get past the craft birdhouses and tarot card readers you can actually meet people who are presenting and actually selling olive products, especially olive oils. I found my way to Olio Nuevo and tasted some samples which I really liked. The guy who was selling at the booth was this very genial man named Art Kishiyama. It turns out he’s also the president of the Central Coast Olive Growers. He’s head of the class and so are his olive oils. I bought a bottle of his Extra Virgin Reserve Blend which Art autographed with a gel pen and a flourish. I’m now beginning to like this guy. I tested his oil at home and really enjoyed its buttery flavor and peppery finish which made it useful for several things.
After that I e-mailed Art and asked if I could possibly come down and visit his ranch off Hwy 41 E and he graciously invited me. He was kind enough to let me spend an entire morning with him. What I wasn’t expecting were the alpacas.
When I arrived Art gave me his brief bio; he attended Cal Poly, enlisted in the Air Force where he advanced to the rank of colonel. After twenty six years of service he became the top exec for the Disney Parks in Japan which pull in 30m visitors per year. Kind of stressful. He and his wife Lynn came back to California and in 2002 purchased their estate in Paso Robles. He began raising llamas and alpacas but eventually began planting olives. The alpacas with Italian names like Tintoretto and Valentino are still there.
After visiting with the Italians Art walked me over to his “terroir”, the ten acres where he has planted mission, manzanillo and arbequina olives. His groves slope steeply 75 feet from the top rows to the bottom ones. This affects temperature as much as 10°F. Also the soil composition seems to be different on the west side of his ranch than on the east side. All of which means the grower has to be nimble in addressing these issues. Art doesn’t use mechanical harvesting tools. Instead he goes out and tapes off the areas which he wants his guys to pick based on ripeness. This is all done by hand. After the olives are picked they are trucked a short way down the road to be pressed.
Art bottles, labels and ships 7,000 bottles all by himself. Really. Mr. Kishiyama is justly proud of the awards his oils have won. His Estate Arbequina got him a Gold Medal at the Los Angeles International Olive Oil Competition 2012. He won Best in Class with his Reserve Blend at the Napa County Fair.
Afterward we went inside out of the heat and discussed what it means for an oil to really qualify as “extra virgin”. The key factors are taste and acidity. The International Olive Council (IOC) requires no more than .8% acidity in order to be certified. The United States is not a member of IOC so USDA handles the job. In 2010 they adopted standards close to those of IOC. Up until then they were using standards dating back to 1948 that were almost laughable. In fact they were more like those used for grading meat. The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has standards that are even stricter requiring no more than .5% acidity. One of the most important retailers of olive oils in California (and I’m not talking about Trader Joe’s) won’t stock California oils that haven’t been properly certified by the lab. It’s not enough for the grower to say “I know it is extra virgin because I made it.” Nope. “Because I said so” just doesn’t cut it. For the record Mr. Kishiyama’s olive oils are COOC certified extra virgin. Anyway that’s enough acronyms for one paragraph.
Well, we shook hands and I drove off back to my office. However in the course of fact checking my story I could see that I needed to e-mail Mr. Kishiyama with some additional questions, and this is where I was thrown back a few paces. I learned some biographical things that you won’t find on his website. I rather naively asked Art if he was familiar with the Japan American National Museum in Los Angeles (I’m asking this of a very well traveled gentleman, but then you don’t know until you ask). This is one of the most beautiful museum spaces in LA, and Art has had his parents' names etched into the walls there.
Next follow up naïve question, “were your parents interned during the war?” Now I get blown back about twenty yards. During the war the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona, beginning in May of 1942, were used as an "assembly center" for the internment camps. Art Kishiyama was the first baby born there. The center was closed a few months later and Art's family (along with about 5,000 other souls) was moved from Pomona to Heart Mountain in Wyoming where his brother was born. After the camps the family moved to Ogden, Utah and another brother was born. All three brothers served in different branches of the service. All were officers of rank. Now I must conclude this with Art’s own words: “My parents had a son in Vietnam almost continuously for over 3 years. Despite being interned for 3 years during the War, they never stopped being Americans – and that’s the way they raised their sons.” And this to me is what terroir means.
For more information on Olio Nuevo and where you can buy it go to www.olionuevo.com and for those Italian alpacas, www.alpacasofcripplecreek.com
Curried Charentais Melon Gazpacho
During the long hot summer, among the things I’m always trying to reinvent are cold soups. I wait and wait for delicious charentais melons to arrive, and now they are here (as of this writing). These melons belong to the cantaloupe family. When properly ripe they will perfume your whole house.* This is the sweetest, most desirable melon there is. Here I’ve turned it into an easy gazpacho style cold soup with the addition of a bit of curry. The two balance out perfectly. This is a tomato-less soup modeled on the original Spanish “white gazpacho” which predates the tomato version.
1 charentais melon, about 2 ½ pounds (or substitute cantaloupe or other sweet, orange/yellow fleshed melon)
2 slices day old white bread crusts removed
Slivered almonds, about 1 ounce
1 ½ tsp really good curry powder (or more to taste)
A splash of good Spanish sherry vinegar
¼ cup Olio Nuevo™ Extra Virgin Reserve Blend olive oil
2 Tbs cilantro chopped
Slice your lovely melon in half. Scoop out the seeds. With your very sharp knife remove the outer hull. Cube the melon flesh into cubes (or pretend cubes) of about 2 inches.
Juice the lime and squeeze over the melon and let it rest while you go to work.
Meanwhile give the stale bread a light soak of water (preferably organic and gluten free from Portland) and then tear it up into pieces.
Heat up a dry skillet and lightly toast the almonds. Don’t let them burn. Set aside.
Place all of the ingredients into a powerful, variable speed blender. Not the wimp ass one you mix Jagermeister Red Bull margaritas in. Begin by pulsing a few times and then crank up the speed to full on liquefy. It’s fun to watch that vortex form in the center.
Strain (with a coarse mesh strainer) into a bowl (if you like you can skip this step, sometimes I do) and refrigerate for at least one to two hours. The purpose of the straining step is to remove any seeds and give you a smooth texture but there is something to be said for a little mouth feel here, I’m now convinced.
*Note to cook; when purchasing a good melon, like a charentais, don’t squeeze it. Sniff the cut blossom end.