Is Olive Oil Really Good for You? Oleavanti Says “Yes!”

About a decade ago, I found myself working on a project with a wine grower who had a deep background in horticulture and arboriculture. When I told him we had an olive farm with about 185 trees, he asked “How old are they?

15-25 years“, I said.

Why would you want to do  that?” he asked “So your grandchildren will have a viable crop?!

He had a point. Almost 12 years later, Lila Farms is only productive as an Airbnb property, not as an olive farm. For now it is a farm of passion, not profit, a farm offering hard lessons about the vagaries of agriculture. It’s given us a venue for outdoor activities, sunburns on our necks, poison oak on our legs, stiffness in our backs, and constant battles with machinery and maintenance – all of which are struggles that come along with the daily joy of our own oil. 

Harvesting olives in the rain
Lila Farms, Boonville CA. Mother nature says “today you pick olives in the rain…”

It’s also given us an appreciation for olive farmers around the globe. While on vacation, we’ve been known to pull over to take photos of ancient olive trees while driving in Spain and Italy. The activity brands us instantly as tourists, but we have accumulated an impressive collection of images!

So when I was contacted by an olive grower from Lebanon, the original source of olives (pre-dating the Phoenicians in 2,500 BC),  you can imagine my interest was piqued. And for good reason, it turns out.

Oleavanti Lebanese Olive Oils

The Oleavanti company is dedicated to working with other Lebanese growers, co-ops and artisan producers, lending their staff’s expertise and resources to help create a better product and a broader international market for their olive oil. Their mission is to create an economic justification for avoiding the creep of urbanization that has uprooted 100+ year-old Lebanese olive trees in favor of buildings.

But Oleavanti is also a grower in their own right as well. They sell their oil (buy it here) from two groves – the Ehden Grove is a blend of Souri and Aayrouni Olives, and the Qadisha Grove, exclusively from the unique Souri olives (believed to be the genetic origin of all olives), grown in a grove located at higher elevation on Mt Lebanon. 

Both oils are more robust than those from the Greek and Italian olive trees we grow at Lila Farms. But they possess that pleasing tang at the back of the throat that lasts long after swallowing the oil – a sign the polyphenols are still intact and that the oil is healthy.

The Oleavanti Team

Led by patriarch, Nakhlé Saadé, whose family has tended olive trees in Lebanon for over five centuries, the Oleavanti team includes his two daughters – Carol (who brings her PhD in Food Science to the table) and Marie, the firms’ designer and art director. They are joine by their brother Boutros whose mechanical engineering background is critical during harvest, and whose education includes studying olive oil internationally. To this family company is an Italian-American, Tony Gualtieri, a co-founder and a mathmetician/statistician in a very specialized field that is most useful for Oleavanti – the analysis of sensory properties of food.

The Oleavanti  Standards

  • Free Acidity < 0.3
  • Peroxide <7.5
  • UV Absorption Index (K232) <1.85
  • Free of sensory defects

What’s all that mean? Free acidity increases as olives oxidize prior to pressing (Oleavanti presses within four hours of picking) or when olives are exposed to the pulp and pits for too long during pressing.

The Peroxide number is a predictor of rancidity and should be kept low. Fresh olive oil smells of grass and herbs, rancid oil smells foul and stale and, well, like you don’t want it in your mouth.

The UV Absorption Index measures purity and quality. A high value indicates the presence of refined oils, adulteration, and rancidity, none of which are present in good olive oil. 

But Is It Good For You?

In answer to the opening question at the top of this post, yes, good, fresh oil is a healthy alternative to fats from animals such as butter or lard. 

As Oleavanti states on their website, olive oil is at the core of the Mediterranean diet shown to increase immunity, provide anti-inflammatory benefits, lower blood pressure, reduce cardiovascular diseases, prevent Alzheimer’s, improve the ratio of good and bad cholesterol and protect the skin.

Unlike oils from seeds, vegetables, and fruits, olive oil is a balanced blend of monounsaturated fatty acids (oleic acid), polyunsaturated (ω-6) fatty acids (linoleic acid), polyunsaturated (ω-3) fatty acids (a-linolenic acid). The presence of other compounds like polyphenols and tocopherols (vitamin E) are unique to fresh extra-virgin olive oil and have invaluable health-promoting properties. 

Thanks

One of the things I’ve learned as a nascent insider in the world of olive oil production, is that there are damn few global standards, and worse, there is no authority over the existing standards. Much of what is sold as EVOO – Extra Virgin Olive Oil – is far from high quality and is frequently blended across vintages (perfectly legal unless there’s a vintage date on the bottle) and even from less expensive sources of oil such as safflower and other vegetables. It’s good to taste oils from producers dedicated to the craft.

And for that, I thank Oleavanti! 

Oleavanti Olive Oil
Packaged with small vials of Lebanese Za’atar, a blend of Thyme, Sumac and toasted Sesame Seeeds we found to be delicious when mixed with the oil and spread on Pita chips – recipe here https://www.oleavanti.com/zaatar-pita-chips/
Dave at the Wine Shop
Wine and Olive Oil – two great pleasures
Dave the Wine Merchant - Logo

Lila Farms Olive Harvest 2012

Lila Farms olive oil - blossoms in 2012Our olive harvest took place this past weekend.  We can not be sufficiently profuse in our thanks to those who trekked the 2.5 hours to our humble farm, and helped harvest 600 pounds of olives – enough for up to 10 gallons or 38 Liters of oil.  Work began a week earlier… no scratch that, it actually started with the Spring flowering, when our olive trees exploded with tiny little flower buds (see photo) that look deceptively like, in their early pre-flower stage, little baby olives.  Sadly, the vast majority are infertile, and will expire unexercised  so to speak.

Of the remainder, tiny olives will form, though they are a long way from finding their way into the picker’s bin and the olive press.  Betwixt and between, the fruit is subject to the whims of Anderson Valley’s barely hospitable olive climate, assuring that Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory will once again prevail.

Laptops are critical for gathering field data in modern olive farmingWe’ve grown fairly adept at rating the spring bud break and the fall fruit yield of each tree on our farm (photo, left).  We walk the rows, laptop in hand, rating each tree on a scale of 0 – 3, and by a fairly simple set of calculations, we’ve been able to estimate with a fair degree of accuracy, the resulting amount of oil the farm will produce in a given year.

Preparing dinner for 70 - 2012 Lila Farms olive harvestAs December draws near, our harvest invitations go out to friends and family.  The event is a lot of work for all involved, but a lot of fun as well.  Food and drink flow throughout the day, and into the early evening, and conversations ebb and flow from tree to tree.  

This year produced a record number of guests who accepted our invitation – almost 70 – so a week before the harvest we bought more food than the US Army. Our 2012 menu included pulled pork sandwiches, and we started slow roasting the meat on Wednesday, with three 5-hour batches finding their way through our ovens over the course of two days.  Thanks go out to friend and neighbor Rick Wallace, who helped cook for six hours on Thursday evening in exchange for nothing but a bit of wine and a bite of dinner.  Ok, a lot of wine.  But still.  That same night marked the beginning of our wave of cancellations – illnesses, a theft, exhaustion, and competing holiday plans, all took their toll.  We knew early on we’d have way too much food!

Lila Farms olive harvest 2012 - daybreakThe weekend before our harvest saw one of the worst storms of 2012, with flash flood warnings, road closures and power outages.  So we were pleased to see the day break on Saturday with our farm sitting above the fog bank, and nearly clear skies.  We set out the first of three waves of food and then welcomed the ever-reliable Sverak family – the first to arrive by a long shot – and we commenced to pickin’.  It was about 10AM.  

Big Red, our 1978 F-250, rose once again from the ashes

Oddly, we have no photos from the 35-40 people who arrived to help during the day, and hope that our attendees’ sea of cameras produced some shots you’ll deem worthy of sharing.  But what we CAN tell you is that, as the afternoon wore on, it became very clear that we had far more fruit than daylight.  Even with 70-80 hands hard at work (well, assuming two each), we knew we would have to leave at least a hundred pounds on the trees, as we had to have the fruit to our milling appointment by 8:30 Sunday morning.  

Dusk at Lila FarmsHere’s the odd thing.  There was no management, no overseer, no verbal agreement to keep going – just a group of friends eager to share our challenge and hated to admit defeat.  Ever pick blackberries and find it difficult to leave because there was “just one more unpicked spot” around every corner?  Yeah it was sort of like that, only without the thorns.

harvesting Lila Farms after dark!After sunset, we worked by car headlight and headlamps until the cold crept into our knuckles and other aging joints, and we recessed to the warmth of our kitchen, den and living room.  I’d selected wines to accompany pulled pork – Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from Phillips Hill, a Berger Zweigelt from my select import portfolio, and for those with contemporary palates, a Zinfandel from Speedy Creek – among a host of other wines from my portfolio.  And for the beer lovers, Anchor Steam’s Celebration Ale was a delicious pairing, offsetting the pork’s spicy dry rub with its round and rich Holiday spice notes.

2012 Lila Farms olive harvest partyOnce inside, we celebrated December birthdays (all five!) and rewarded our hard-working friends with some good conviviality.  It was a fairly early evening, however, as we had to get up by 7AM for the one-hour drive to our 8:30 appointment at the olive press the next morning.

Lila Farms 2012 Harvest goes to crushOur little four-car caravan toted almost 20 yellow bins to the press at Dry Creek Olive Oil Co., where our 579 pounds of fruit was turned into oil.  

Lila Farms 2012 Harvest gets a bathThe fruit gets washed before being crushed, because there aren’t that many people who like spiders in their olive oil.  

After crushing, the must is warmed up to 80 degrees (max) to help extract the oil – this is the process known as “Cold Press” you’ve likely seen on the labels of  better olive oils.  Though higher temperatures extract additional oil, its more bitter and lower in quality. 

How much oil did we get this year?  A gallon of olive oil generally results from each 60 – 80 pounds of fruit.  But this year’s heavy rains increased the water content of our olives so our yield required far more olives – 89 pounds – to produce each gallon of oil  So our total for this year’s harvest was just 6.5 gallons of oil for all our valiant efforts.  

Fortunately, a good time was had by all, and we thank all participants for their enthusiastic contributions. 

Cheers!  Dave

Lila Farms lost and found - 2012 olive harvest

P.S. Lost and found photo – add to this a pair of blue gloves (kid sized) and socks filled with rice.  Contact me if any of these are yours!

And now – our public photo gallery, courtesy of our talented volunteers:

Bucket Heads Sveraks Bucket Heads Lila Farm olives by Mo Sverak The Sverak Family 2 - some of our most reliable pickers! Tree on Lila Farm at the 2012 olive harvest IMG_1904 IMG_1912 IMG_1915 IMG_1918 IMG_1919