Stomping grapes for winemaking is fun, but watching a stream of glistening, dark-green olive oil pouring out of a brand new Italian press is downright exciting, as we discovered last week at Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard near Elmendorf.
The large machine, with a nameplate that says “Il Molinetto” (or “mill”) requires both electrical and plumbing connections to do its job. For this year’s pressing, four representatives from the Pieralisi Group, the machine’s manufacturer, came to Texas to facilitate its maiden run.
They arrived at night, Aug. 31, three of the men from Italy and one from the company’s United States division in Cincinnati. They appeared at the orchard the next morning – and it was not a moment too soon. The fruit was ripening by the hour and harvesters were already out among the trees, picking by hand.
A large tarp, spread on the floor in an air-conditioned room next to the pressing room, was covered with olives, creating a fascinating mosaic. The thousands of small, ovoid shapes spanned a rainbow of colors that olives show as they ripen, from bright green to rose, dark brown to almost black.
While wineries and wine-grape growing are burgeoning in Texas, it has only been in the past 15 years or so that Texas really began looking toward growing olive trees. Olive trees like a Mediterranean climate, so the state’s colder areas aren’t suitable for growing. Further south, however, the trees thrive.
In 1994, according to the Texas Olive Council, there were only 20,000 olive trees in Texas in four orchards. As of 2007, there were nearly 97,000 trees, with many more to be planted. Some in the industry say that by 2010 there will be 500,000 trees in the state.
Saundra C. Winokur founded Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard, a working, 258-acre ranch, about 11 years ago. More than 40 acres are planted to olive trees. While she has a family history going back six generations in Texas ranching, Winokur is a pioneer in the olive-growing business. At her ranch, about 20 miles south of San Antonio, she has experimented with varieties of olive trees, soil mixes, irrigating and other growing techniques, to get to the point that she is today.
She now has more than 10,000 trees in her orchard, including many of the lovely Spanish arbequina olive trees that she was the first in the nation to import. Her nursery supplies potted olive trees to those who want to plant a crop to those who just want a beautiful, as well as useful tree in their backyard. Winokur shares her expertise with her customers, of course, but is also called upon to speak to a wide range of interested groups and to give seminars to growers.
In addition to growing trees, Winokur has developed a line of olive oil-based skin care products, which she produces herself in the Sandy Oaks kitchen. Local artisans make olive oil soap for her, which she also sells at her shop. When this year’s harvest is brined, the pickled olives will be sold, as will dry olive leaves for a healthful tea, and Winokur’s signature olive leaf jelly.
By midday Sept. 1, Italian workers and ranch crew have the guts of the new machine strewn out on the floor of the pressing room and into the main hallway of the barn. Ranch manager Miguel Villarreal, his brother, orchard manager Roberto Villarreal, Winokur, others of her crew as well as a few onlookers might be experiencing a bit of anxiety, watching the press being dismantled. But the prominent feeling is excitement. No one doubts that the machine will be in good working order soon, up and running like a well-tuned Maserati.
When the troubleshooting is finished and the pieces put back together again on Wednesday, the big moment is at hand. Not only does the machine appear ready to roll, there are olives aplenty.
Last year, says Winokur, the harvest from her orchard wasn’t large enough to make oil. “So, we pickled olives instead,” she says. These olives, sold in jars at Winokur’s tasting room, were spiked with garlic and black pepper – and quickly sold out.
The previous year, in 2007, the crew operated a press from Egypt, composed of two large millstones. This press is traditionally worked by donkey power in Egypt, but Winokur used a John Deere tractor. Olive oil made in this method comes out with a bit of sediment, which eventually settles to the bottom of its container and the cleared oil is poured off.
At last, the first of this year’s harvest is loaded into the hopper of Il Molinetto. The hopper shakes off dirt and leaves, spilling them to the floor. Then, the olives go into a crusher and mixer, which grinds the olives to a paste, called pomace. Some producers will take the pomace, reheat it and put it through another pressing. The oil from this pressing is not of high quality, however.
“All of our oil will be from the first pressing,” says Winokur. “We’ll never make oil by re-pressing the pomace.” Instead, she says, the dark, grainy paste will be used for cattle food and compost. And, if you ever think that the first pressed, extra virgin olive oil is expensive, remember that it takes 10 pounds of olives to make a quart of olive oil.
In accordance with her dedication to sustainable practices at Sandy Oaks, Winokur says the water that is used in the process goes into a graywater retention tank where it will be used for irrigating the olive plants in the plant shed and in the orchard. Winokur raises about 31 varieties of trees and sells Bonsai olive trees as well.
The machine is pounding away at a dull roar, the pomace is coming out of a tube, going into a green bucket set on the concrete floor. Onlookers fidget. We are almost holding our collective breath except for the fact that centrifuging the pomace, which eventually coaxes out the oil, takes some time.
Finally, out of a spotless, stainless steel pipe, comes a thin stream of bright green liquid, making a light ringing sound as it falls into a steel bowl below. The excitement couldn’t have been greater had the oil been molten gold. Someone comes in with a handful of clean spoons and after Winokur and her managers take first tastes, the rest of us get to sample. Our waiting was worth it, but so much more to those who had put in years of effort to get to this moment. The oil is good, we agree, with a rich, fruity character.
As the new press is put through its paces, time and again, it will settle into its function and produce a better and better product, says Winokur. In fact, I call a couple of days later and already, she says, the oil is coming out with a slightly different, clean taste.
“I love it,” says Winokur about the press. “It’s a very sweet piece of machinery. The great thing about it is that it is running so well now, even after the Italians have gone home. It’s a real tribute to Miguel and to the machine,” Winokur says. The ranch manager, Villarreal, is also an electrician, a trade that will come in quite handy as he will be the machine’s primary handler.
Winokur is echoing the feelings of everyone who was at the ranch last week. Pressing and harvesting will continue, though this year the activity is not open to the general public since there were too many unknowns to deal with.
But, after the first week, all of us who were there know a few things: We are in love with this product, impressed with Il Molinetto and we are definitely hungry for pasta tossed in fresh, first cold-pressed Texas olive oil.
The olive ranch’s gift shop and nursery are open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and Monday for scheduled pickup and deliveries only. The ranch is closed Sunday. Saturday tours are at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and are free. For tours during the week call (210) 621-0044. Visit www.sandyoaks.com for directions and more information.