I have always loved olives. My earliest olive memories involve eating rubbery canned black olives off the tips of my fingers at Thanksgiving dinner. So when my husband Paul brought home the Food and Wine section of the Santa Rosa newspaper, which announced the Olive Festival in Sonoma County, well, I just had to go. Now, the Olive Festival is a group of events scattered through February, much like the Mustard Festival in Napa Valley is set up. This past weekend there was an olive curing workshop on Sunday and we were there, as well as olive oil tasting at a couple of tasting rooms.
First up, on Saturday we went to The Olive Press, south of Sonoma, in the Jacuzzi Winery Tasting gizmo. Jacuzzi has a beautiful tasting room and The Olive Press has a nice, clean, pretty setup for tasting olive oil. And of course there are lots of goodies for sale. I saw boxes of parmesan crisps for sale and I went ha! I can (and do) make that! Actually they were herbed, so how about adding a little fresh thyme or rosemary to the mix? No problemo. I bought a Vosges chocolate bar while I was there, one with black sea salt and caramel snugged inside 70% chocolate. Pretty danged good.
After leaving The Olive Press and heading back toward Sonoma, be sure to stop at Cornerstone, just up the road. There are art galleries with some wildly expensive goods, gardens which look awful in January and a café. It was fun to nose around and I got a kick out of the blue tree. Some artist saw a dead tree on the property and decided to cover it with blue Christmas ornaments. I shot it just for you.
Heading north of Sonoma on Sonoma Highway (12) we stopped at Figone’s for more olive oil tasting. I liked the general store look of Figone’s, a little bit of old California instead of bright, shiny not a hair out of place nouveau California. I tasted the habanero infused olive oil which almost put me on the floor and enjoyed the good old fashioned evoo, but what got my motor running was the 20 year old Balsamic vinegar. Sweet, syrupy and heavenly. Our hostess said at $28 it was equivalent to $100 Italian Balsamico of the same quality. I can’t verify that, but it was amazing over vanilla ice cream. I don’t want to run out!
Regarding the restaurants in Sonoma and thereabouts, there just aren’t that many that impress, unlike the Napa valley where you can’t swing a dead cat... You get the idea. When we drove through Glen Ellen we spotted a place called Saffron. Upon looking up their site on Paul’s Blackberry, the menu looked good, but at 4 pm nobody seemed to be around and they were supposed to open at 5. The Glen Ellen Inn looked interesting and the next day a local told us it was very good but they hadn’t heard any buzz about Saffron at all. Maybe it’s a big secret! At any rate, we weren’t hungry at the time and decided to head back to Sonoma after checking out a chocolate store, and on to our motel. I asked our check in hostess at El Pueblo about restaurants and she suggested the Swiss Hotel, the building having literally stood 100 years, and Meritage, a fish place. Since I was curious about the Swiss Hotel we went there.
This is a casual, old place with antique photographs on all the walls. The staff is friendly and the restaurant filled up while we were there. Paul ordered pasta as always and he was happy with it. I was drawn in by the lamb shanks and ordered them. I made a fatal error, as always. I am the queen of braising and have definite ideas on how tender the meat should be, as in fork tender. I should have told the server that’s what I require (in the nicest possible way of course) so that I might actually get that. In short, part of the shank was tough; however, after poking around I discovered that enough of it was tender so I didn’t send it back. In fairness, the polenta it was nestled in was creamy and delicious, the sundried tomato sauce on the shank was bright and flavorful and the green beans were perfectly cooked. However, I couldn’t resist lecturing the server (in the nicest possible way, of course) on how meat should be braised: with enough time to get really tender!! I know, I’m picky.
On Sunday we went to the Olive Curing Workshop at the B.R. Cohn Winery in Glen Ellen. There are 140 year old Picholine olive trees growing on the property and the winery is selling the oil. The property is beautiful and I’m totally jealous. As an aside, Bruce Cohn has been the Doobie Brothers’ manager since the 1970’s. All I can say is he was there and he seemed nice as well as rich and respectable. Nice antique hot rod collection too.
Our olive curing master is Don Landis and he is a fount of knowledge. Olives aren’t a business for him; he loves the subject and loves to share his knowledge. Olives contain nonpoisonous (to humans), water soluble oleuropein, which makes olives so incredibly bitter they are impossible to eat in their natural state and so must be debittered, or, cured.
We found out the best olives for home curing are Mission, Manzanillo and Sevillano. The three methods of home curing are brining (which takes months), water cured and salt cured. Olives are ready to pick in the fall, which means Paul and I have a few months to find sources of olives for curing. At the end of the workshop Don and his sidekick, Olive Oyl, handed out their home cured olives for tasting. Oh man, they were good! Much better than most commercially cured olives, which are processed with lye, which leaches out pretty much all nutritional goodies, as well as flavor. Don is leading another curing workshop in February, and coming up Feb. 19 and 20 there will be An Olive Odyssey at The Olive Press, which will feature tastings of home cured olives from various people who love to participate in giving away their goods. Paul and I are going to do our best to make it. See you there?
Coming soon, cheese making?