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About Apollo Olive Oil
Stones to State of the Art
From Traditional Stones to State-of-the art
Steven planted his first 600 olive trees in 1979, on steep slopes adjacent to his fruit orchard. And, after traveling extensively through the Mediterranean during the 1980’s, he knew he wanted to make olive oil.
For the first couple of years, his oil was milled at a facility in the Central Valley. While good, they did not live up to his memories of the transcendent oils of France, Spain, Italy and Greece. So he determined to learn the craft himself. In the late 1990’s he spent each harvest season visiting top producers, and one year apprenticed at a mill in Provence. One conclusion he came to was that conventional modern mills were built exclusively for production concerns, and not for the quality of extraction. And he also noticed that the very best millers in Europe had all cut their teeth on the traditional stone mill/woven mat press.
With his friend Edward Klaner, he searched for and eventually found a traditional mill that was being scrapped. Edward is mechanically inclined and has a white collar job that keeps his hands much too clean. He was willing to supervise the transport of the old mill from its home on the east coast of Central Italy, and to reassemble it piece by piece in the Sierra Foothills. Steven and Edward made their first oil in 1998, and after Gianni took over the helm in 2000, they began to rack up Gold Medals at the LA County Fair.
The traditional mill has a number of advantages over the modern conventional mill, the primary one being that it requires true craftsmanship to run it properly. At each phase the olive paste is visible, and each phase requires intense human intervention. Modern crushing, for example, takes place in an enclosed box, and is the work of a second. Traditional crushing takes place in an open vat over the course of around 15 minutes. The miller is able to observe the precise effect of the milling on particle size and oil extraction, and to make appropriate timing decisions. Running our traditional mill for seven years gave us a deep understanding of what really happens to the olive during its time in the mill.
There is, however, a great weakness to the traditional system: a very high level of oxidation. As Gianni established himself clearly as our master miller, he began to push us toward acquiring a system that could dramatically reduce that oxidation. And our path began to take us toward Marco Mugelli.
Dr. Mugelli is perhaps the top researcher, producer and taster of olive oil in the world. Over the last 20 years he has developed an extraction system that retains the maximum possible flavors and nutritional benefits. In collaboration with a fellow Tuscan engineer, his unique mills are built to operate under vacuum, and with a wide range of computerized sensors and adjustable controls. A few strategic partners run these prototype mills at their locations, and collaborate with Marco in the process of refining and perfecting the mill. One such partner is in Sardinia, another in Sicily, and Marco runs a third mill from his Tuscan home. He hadn’t considered taking on an American partner, but he eventually caved in to our persistence, and has been a close associate—and friend—ever since.
Really Organic, Really Sustainable Farming
True organic farming is respectful. It knows that the earth has its own wisdom, and makes a good partner in food production. The farmer's role is to encourage the general direction in which particular crops wish to grow, and to nudge them further. By being attentive and helpful, the farmer is midwife to the healthiest plants; the healthiest plants, in turn, bring forth the most nutritious and flavorful fruit.
I have been growing organically since the late 1970’s. My own practices vary from crop to crop (I also grow commercial cherries, peaches, nectarines, pears, apples and the like), and each year's new insights bring new experiments. Three key concepts, however, are unchangeable and govern those practices: the right plant in the right place, feeding the soil, protecting the ecology.
The Plant Where it Belongs
My neighbor grows great apricots, while mine never flourish. The apricots my trees produce lack the deep, harmonious flavors of his. I cannot find a good explanation for why this particular fruit doesn't grow well exactly here, but that's the fact. So now I don't fight it, and instead trade my terrific Redhaven peaches for his terrific apricots, and I am happy. A plant knows where it can flourish. A farmer is one who recognizes a tendency to flourish, and finds ways to assist that tendency. His practices then flow easily from a position of service.
The olive only really flourishes in a true Mediterranean climate, with which only 1.2% of the earth’s surface is blessed. Our little patch of the Sierra foothills falls into that tiny Mediterranean percentile, which gives us the possibility of exploring the great range of flavors and nuances offered by Old World varieties.
Since 1997 we have planted over 5,000 olive trees comprising some 44 varieties—French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Tunisian—and have an ever-increasing sense of where each flourishes best. Leccino (Italian) and Tanche (French) do fine in the colder, low-lying areas; Koroneiki (Greek) produces more flavor in steep, rocky places; Picual (Spanish) grows eagerly in all local conditions, while Barouni (Tunisian) responds best to only the loamiest soils. As we verify the ideal locations for each variety, we transplant or graft to accommodate their individual requirements.
When the right plant is growing in the right place, I trust its capacity to feed itself. What it needs from my intervention is a rich, vital, nourishing medium to mine for essential elements. It knows how much potassium it needs, and how much zinc; it doesn't need me to tell it. Annual tissue analysis confirms for me that a healthy soil contains virtually all the elements a tree needs, and in sufficient amounts. Let the tree, then, take as much as it wishes. We apply lots of compost to the field (not just within the dripline of the tree). We use horse manure (lots of horses hereabouts) and composted trimmings from local public works departments. We concentrate on getting strong stands of clover. Hykon rose clover works very well here, as do various subterranean clovers. We also work to keep the topsoil moist, to encourage the activity of earthworms and microbes. We apply foliar sprays--mostly fish emulsion and kelp--at intervals through the season as a boost.
Milling to Maximize Polyphenols
The essence of extraction: milling under vacuum
Gianni learned his craft the old fashioned way—on the classic stone mill/vertical press system (see Stones to State-of-the-Art)—and then refined it by working with the most advanced machinery in the world. He is dedicated to the art of extraction, meaning the nursing forth of every last ounce of flavor and nutrition that the olive contains.
Our mill is uniquely designed to serve that art. One of only five in the world, and the only one in America, our Culitvar 500 has many advantages over conventional machines, the most noteworthy of which is that it operates under vacuum. In the hour or so that it takes for an olive to pass through a conventional mill, it undergoes tremendous oxidation, resulting in a significant loss of volatile aromas, characteristic flavors and health-giving anti-oxidants (polyphenols). By operating under vacuum—thus dramatically reducing exposure to oxygen—the Cultivar 500 retains these polyphenols, resulting in an oil of greater fragrance, flavor, balance and nutrition (see Health).
Our mill is also equipped with a sophisticated system of sensors that constantly assess the olive paste in its journey through the various phases of production. And, most importantly, it has the flexibility to make adjustments to the working of the paste based on the feedback from those sensors. This allows Gianni to make minute and timely interventions at each phase of the process.
The Craftsman at Work
Extraction really begins with determining the proper moment for harvest. Steven monitors the weather, anticipates its effect on the ripening of the olives and tracks the development of sugar and oil content within the olives over the course of the autumn and early winter. Each combination of location and variety has its particular moment of optimum ripeness, and experience indicates when each variety will yield its most mature, and most characteristic, flavors and aromas.
Some varieties are best green and firm at harvest; others at different levels of color change and texture. With the Cultivar 500, Gianni has the ability to treat each variety differently to maximize quality extraction: this olive needs a faster crushing speed; that olive will benefit from a longer maceration time in the malixer; yet another needs particularly slow RPMs in the decanter.
Every day, the milling team assembles around Gianni—Pablo, Steven, Andreas, Juan, Diana—to critique the oils and discuss possible adjustments. This moment is the most important of all, as it refocuses us all on optimizing quality, and drives the season’s lessons deeply into our collective understanding.
Each year during harvest, Dr. Marco Mugelli either spends a week or two with us, or is on-call while at other mills in Spain, and Italy. Marco is the world’s foremost expert in oil extraction and Italy’s top olive oil sensory evaluation panel leader. He is also the master-mind behind the Cultivar 500. On a typical day, he runs a wide range of experiments, changing speeds and times on different batches; then making a rigorous sensory evaluation of each batch, to understand how each adjustment affected the resultant oil.
Chemical analysis confirms that oil made on this innovative system, and by such attentive hands, is much higher in polyphenols. Sensory evaluation by experts worldwide consistently finds these oils richer in flavor, aroma and varietal character. These oils occupy a quality niche distinct from virtually all others, which earns them a distinct designation: Supreme Extra Virgin.
Malixers gently knead the paste to nurse the oil from the surrounding water and solids. Since these operate under vacuum, we can run them for as long as necessary for the specific requirements of each batch. In other systems, this is where the greatest breakdown of polyphenols occurs. (left photo)
Our decanter is specially designed: as it spins to liberate the oil, it forms a seal preventing oxygen from entering, thus holding the vacuum. The precious oil is then pumped through a gentle mechanical filtration system removing particulate matter that could lead to the degradation of the oil. (right photo)