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.

Sunny Side Up

How is it possible for a city that got its name by “keeping it weird,” that celebrates craft beer, and hosts an above average percentage of plant-based denizens hasn’t yet found a way to combine these factors into one harmonious outpost? At least, it hadn’t, up until now. Sunny’s Backyard is the first 100% vegan bar, or pub, as they call themselves, to hit Austin. Still open softly, the interior of the building is still closed, but they’re slinging food fast and furious from the trailer parked out front.

While it’s not exactly a drinking destination yet, until they get their liquor license, the beer is FREE! That said, the food itself is reason enough to trek out to the east side. We’re talking about wonton cheese sticks served with sriracha aioli, giant soft pretzels, and crispy fried banana peppers, just to get you started.

While you’re loading up on all the comfort food your stomach can handle, don’t be misled by the healthy-sounding Brussels sprout salad. They’re actually fried to crispy, cravable perfection, drenched in a sweet and sour ponzu sauce, drizzled with spicy, creamy aioli, and finish with pickled vegetables. It’s brilliantly balanced, and also an impressive pile of food. You definitely get your money’s worth here.

If you can only order one thing, though, make it the street dog. It’s not just a meatless frank; it’s dipped in beer batter, covered in French fries, and slathered in more of that godly creamy sauce. Highly Instagrammable, yes, but also a culinary feat well worth the calories.

Even without all systems go, I’m already smitten with this new watering hole. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine it getting even better, but you can bet I’ll come back to see it happen.

Sunny’s Backyard
3526 E 7th St.
Austin, TX 78702

Almost Wordless Wednesday: People, Places, and Things

The time to write about my graduation ceremony has long passed, and yet I still cling tenaciously to the spare images I captured of that day, as if they might become the catalyst for my next great novel. They stand alone, in the pile of unpublished images, separate from any other event or story I might use them to illustrate, gathering more digital dust with every passing year. Others join them, like the snapshot of a chef at work now halfway around the world. Random facades of buildings that seemed noteworthy, but don’t quite merit a full article by themselves.

I can’t bring myself to trash them, to erase those memories, to simply forget those moments. The camera is my only method of preserving such happy times, more trustworthy than my feeble mind, and far sharper than my often nebulous words. Digging them out of the archive to share them as is, without context, is the only way I can think to certify their existence at this point. A random grab bag of pictures without theme or connection, I’d like to believe that they still speak volumes individually, and perhaps together, in the broader story of a life well lived.