Located about 45 minutes south of Portland in the rolling hills above Dayton, Red Ridge Farms spreads out like a piece of Tuscany. The Farm is home to the carefully tended grapes of Durant Vineyards and the unlikely scene of thousands of olive trees growing in the cool Yamhill Valley.
This is the Oregon Olive Mill, the only commercial olive oil processor in the Pacific Northwest. Each fall, the fruit from the Farms’ 13,000 olive trees, as well as other olives brought in from northern California, are milled and pressed into five styles of oil.
On a recent afternoon, the Tuscan Association of Oregon gathered for a tour of the mill and an olive oil tasting. Their guide was Libby Clow, a native of Vancouver, Washington but a devotee of Italy, the slow food movement, and HQEVOO – high quality extra virgin olive oil. She oozes enthusiasm and knowledge when it comes to re-educating Oregonians about olive oil. Part of that education takes place in the Blue Glass Tasting Room with a unique tasting experience.
It starts with a blue, tulip-shaped glass, the better to warm its contents in your hands. It continues with a sniff, a sip and a slurp. Well, really more of a slurrrrrp! Sometimes, immediately after the slurp, it’s followed by a cough, cough, cough!
“In Italy, when tasting olive oils, they ask ‘Is it a one-cough, a two-cough or a three-cough?’ because that will tell you the region the oil comes from,” Clow explains. “That’s the pungency of the oil. It can come across as peppery or prickly in the back of your throat.”
“Someone’s dying over here,” jokes one of the tasters, as those who aren’t coughing break into laughter.
“The American palate is geared toward rancidity. Rancid oil won’t hurt you but you lose the health benefits – the antioxidants and the heart-healthy properties,” she says.
Clow learned about artisanal extra virgin olive oil, the importance of local production, and the Slow Food movement during an internship in rural Tuscany. She spent three years in Italy, part of it on a farm internship through Portland, Maine’s Spannocchia Foundation. It was a transformative experience, which eventually led her to Red Ridge Farms and the Oregon Olive Mill.
It takes eight years for an olive tree to bear fruit. “You grow grapes for your children, but olives for your grandchildren,” says Clow. That’s a good thing, because Clow needs that lead time to retrain taste buds. Libby is bold, assertive and hard to ignore, just like the oils she’s so passionate about.
“Americans are rather disjointed about our relationship with food. In Italy, they have a different approach – it is very visceral. I want to bring that relationship to America,” she says. “There is an ephemeral nature to food that we should appreciate every day. No meal we eat will ever be the same again!”
So Clow works the tasting table at Red Ridge Farms, or takes her Oregon Olive Mill show on the road, doing tastings for clubs and groups around Portland.
“It’s about getting people to see olive oil not as a commodity but as a seasoning. It something that you don’t just cook in, it’s something that changes the flavor of food,” says Clow, who uses terms like “fresh cut grass” and “walnut skins” to describe the taste and aroma of the Tuscan, Frantoio, Arbequina and Koroneiki varietals which Oregon Olive Mill produces.
There is a price – a relatively high one – for locally made HQEVOO. “Our trees are young; our yields are small so our oil is not cheap! Price point is the biggest obstacle. But if I get people to try it, they can taste the difference,” she says. “Convincing people to try locally produced olive oil isn’t a hard sell because Portland supports artisanal food producers. At the end of the day, it’s about turning people’s palates around, away from rancidity, and wanting them to experience fresh, high quality extra virgin olive oil again and again.”
Clow advocates for local oil, with its unique flavor characteristics, consumed quickly for peak enjoyment. Olive oil is sensitive to time, light, oxygen and temperature. As the Oregon Tuscans’ tasting progresses, the coughing subsides and the appreciation for small-batch, locally made oil grows. Clow is changing the way Americans see olive oil, one slurp at a time.
In addition to its daily tours and tastings, Oregon Olive Mill also holds their annual Olio Nuovo Festa, a free event open to the public in November. It is a chance to get a first taste of the season’s freshly milled olive oils right at the source. Visitors also enjoy mill tours, traditional Italian bruschetta, and the latest wines from Durant Vineyards. More information is available at www.redridgefarms.com.