Strike Oil in Hill Country

As one of, if not the single most important pantry staple in kitchens worldwide, olive oil is big business. Production has more than tripled in the last 60 years, skyrocketing beyond 3,262,000 tons at last count in 2019. From that endless pool of golden oil, US production is a comparative drop in the bucket; less than half of a percent of that figure is grown domestically. Finding a local olive oil producer out in the middle of Texas, of all places, is akin to finding a mirage in the desert.

However, against all odds, Texas Hill Country Olive Co is not a heatstroke-induced day dream, but a real place just 40 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Austin. Winding down twisted roads that cut through open fields, the brief journey out of town drops you into a wholly different world. Situated on 17 acres of pristine alkaline soil, the orchard is home to 2,000 olive trees. What began in 2008 as a winery quickly evolved into a world-class olive oil powerhouse, netting the small business top honors in the prestigious New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) for their very first harvest, back in 2010.

Locals and tourists alike gather to take a peek behind the curtain, enjoying guided tours that run the length of the grounds and back through the mills within the facility. When I visited back in late February, it was perhaps not the most auspicious time; still reeling from the devastating winter storm, the damage was readily apparent. Trees lay barren, cracked and bleeding vital sap down every weathered trunk. Typically, olive trees can withstand a change of about 15 degrees over a 24-hour period, not the mind-bending 90-degree shift we saw over the course of a week. Some can be saved by severe pruning, but others can only be salvaged as mulch or fertilizer at this point. The only olives visible outside were found on the ground, dried and withered, ghostly reminders of previous growth.

Despite that, there’s still hope in the forecast. Flowers are blossoming now alongside April showers, and each individual flower will develop into a single olive. All olives start green, slowly darkening on the branches to a dark mottled plum hue. Unlike large scale commercial operations, you won’t find any lye or chemicals to artificially force this brilliant metamorphosis. Come September and November, the harvest will begin, yielding anywhere from 18 – 35 pounds of fruit per tree. That might sound like a lot, but bear in mind that it take 14 pounds to make one 250ml (1 cup) bottle of olive oil.

Presses imported from Italy complete the transformation right on site. Flesh and pit alike go straight in; washed, crushed, and made into paste, the mash is agitated at 65 – 85 degrees to maintain the illustrious designation as “cold pressed.” Spun at high velocity, the paste is separated from the oil using centripetal force.

After seeing such love and labor go into every golden drop, you can fully appreciate the depth and breadth of flavors presented in each lavish tasting flight. Dancing through different blends and flavor-infusion oils, various balsamic vinegars are presented as complimentary and contrasting pairings. Explosive aromas overwhelm the senses, astounding the unprepared with every subsequent sip. It’s a heady experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Don’t fill up on the complimentary bread and apple dippers, though. The Orchard Bistro at the heart of the everyday operation is a destination in itself. Menus vary seasonally, sourcing local produce with an emphasis on cooking everything from scratch. Much is culled from their own garden for freshness that can’t be beat.

Ask the chef about vegan options, and they’ll make sure you’re taken care of. Perennial staples include crisply toasted crostini, whole olives, and olive oil with homemade sourdough bread for dipping. For a light lunch, the antipasto salad is far better than your average leafy affair; a riot of colors, adorned with pickled vegetables and marinated chickpeas. The heartier grain salad includes tender, toothsome farro with the produce du jour. Don’t forget to check the daily specials for the soup offerings, hot or cold. I was lucky enough to drink down a creamy cauliflower bisque when I stopped by, lavished not with heavy cream, but [of course] olive oil.

Plan to spend a day out at Hill Country Olive Oil Co, taking in the fresh air, relaxing on the dog-friendly patio, and if you come later in the summer, getting your game on in their planned bocce ball court. Make sure you grab a bottle of the signature strawberry-balsamic lemonade, sweetened primarily with the concentrated vinegar itself. Before long, you’ll feel like part of the family here, too.

Miraculous Olive Oil

The legendary oil that fueled the original Hanukkah miracle, burning brightly for eight days on end, was most certainly olive oil. Capable of wonders both big and small, historically and still to this day, it’s an indispensable staple that’s saved me from all variety of culinary plights. Just as the biblical story exhorts, a little bit of extra virgin olive oil goes a long way.

Why is this the obvious, and only rational choice? While it doesn’t last forever, kept in a dark and cool place, tightly sealed bottles will stay just as fresh for up to a year and a half without any preservatives, high-pressure canning practices, or refrigeration. Plus, it can handle the heat. Contrary to popular belief, extra virgin olive oil does indeed have a high smoke point (400° F), so it can handle anything from a light sauté to a deep (and deeply flavorful) fry. You can bake with olive oil, as well.

Extra virgin olive oil is made by sheer force, extracted by pressure without heat or chemicals. It represents quality you can taste. Virtually free of acidity(below 0.8%,) each oil is judged by experts, who must agree that it meets the high flavor standards to bear the official designation of “extra virgin.” Each bottle that makes the grade must exhibit the presence of nuanced fruity, bitter, and spicy notes, in every bold drop. If these signature components aren’t all in perfect, harmonious balance, it won’t receive the esteemed rating, and you’ll never suffer the injustice of a subpar specimen.

European extra virgin olive oil in particular is held to some of the highest standards. The olive tree has been revered in Europe since antiquity. Over thousands of years, farmers have evolved hundreds of cultivars and optimized them for different environment conditions and terrains to produce the most flavorful yields.

Beyond its legendary piquancy, aroma, and zest, extra virgin olive oil can literally shed a light on the darkness of a largely overlooked holiday practice. The fabled tale of the Hanukkah miracle is more than just mythology, after all. Even without a fancy vessel or ornamental candles, my menorah burns as brightly as ever this year, powered by oil alone. If you have wicks and olive oil, you can make one from scratch in a matter of minutes, too!

Just make sure you save a little drizzle for dessert. While balsamic vinegar often gets all the attention as an unconventional ice cream topper, lending a savory, tangy twist to the usual old frosty scoop, I happen to love the richness that this golden-green elixir adds instead. Vanilla would be most traditional, but what’s to say it doesn’t pair just as well with a luscious spoonful of giandua (hazelnut-chocolate) ice cream, melting luxuriously to mingle with the oil itself?

Quality staples are worthy of a celebration everyday, but especially for the holidays, splurging on really good extra virgin olive oil will taste like a little miracle in every dish.

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Flavor Your Life

It’s one of the most common cooking staples across the globe, found in even the most sparsely populated pantries and in the hands of extraordinarily reluctant cooks. Olive oil’s ubiquity is owed in large part to its accessibility, as a vast number of brands have become available in recent years. Such a vast range of options should immediately suggest that not all oils are created equal, yet few shoppers pause to think about the origin of those original fruits before popping a sleek new bottle into their carts. For such a beloved, indispensable ingredient, there sure is still an overwhelming amount of misinformation out there.

Inspired by the Flavor Your Life campaign, supported by the European Union, Unaprol, and the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, the goal of debunking common misconceptions resonated with me in a powerful way. Moms Meet provided a bottle of Zucchi Extra Virgin Olive Oil to demonstrate the difference, but I’ve long been a devotee of quality European olive oils even without that delicious perk.

Let’s not beat around the olive tree, and get down to business. It’s time to talk about the top olive oil myths that need to be put to rest, once and for all:

You can’t fry with it.

Contrary to the single most frequently perpetuated false fact, olive oil has a 400-degree smoke point and can hold up beautifully (and tastefully) to the task of deep frying. Raising the heat beyond that temperature will only result in burnt food no matter the carrier, so keep a thermometer clipped to the pot, tend it carefully, and your taste buds will be rewarded.

Only extra-virgin will work in dressings.

Though there is a drop of truth in that statement, extra-virgin is merely a title bestowed to the very top grade of oil, cold pressed; extracted without heat or chemicals. That isn’t to say that other grades are of any lower quality. If anything, their flavor has a lower impact, which might actually be a welcome quality if your vinaigrette has bold seasonings that would otherwise obliterate the delicate nuances of a top grade oil. On the reverse side of the spectrum, this more neutral palate could be a benefit for baked goods where you don’t want such a savory note to shine though.

Kept in a dark, cool place, it should keep pretty much indefinitely.

Those volatile oils would beg to differ! Like any other fresh food, it should be refrigerated, and for no more than 6 – 8 months, ideally. It does go rancid at room temperature, although most people are so accustomed to using sub-par varieties, they may not realize the truly superlative, ephemeral nature of the genuine article.

Terroir is only for wine.

Extra-virgin is top shelf quality, but bottles bearing that designation manifest that grade through a wide spectrum of flavors. The greatest contributors to taste are the types of olive trees (cultivar), the region (which affects climate and soil) and time of harvest. Early in the harvest season, under-ripe fruits produce oils that are greener, more bitter and pungent. By contrast, olives harvested towards the end of season are over-ripe, resulting in a more mild, sweet, and buttery character. Other variables can yield oils that skew more nutty, peppery, grassy, floral, and beyond.

Considering the incredibly varied range of options being produced in all corners of the European continent, this is just the tip of the iceberg. A full education on this essential ingredient can be gleaned with just a dash of culinary curiosity, and a pinch of knowledge from the Flavor Your Life campaign. Eating better starts with cooking better, and there’s no substitute for quality components.