An Olive Oasis

Feb 4, 2011
 By Blair Tellers - Gilroy Dispatch


Gilroy resident Jeff Martin walks through his olive grove, Frantoio Grove, in San Martin. The farm has 3,500 olive trees that he planted six years ago and the first bottles of Martin's olive oil are available at Rocca's Market in San Martin starting today.
Photo by: Lora Schraft, Staff Photographer
On Dec. 12, the first extra virgin olive oil from the orchard was milled.
Photo by: Special to The Dispatch
Martin holds some Frantoio olives in various stages of ripeness.
Photo by: Lora Schraft, Staff Photographer
Jeff Martin milled 420 gallons of olives on Dec. 12, which produced the first virgin olive oil from the orchard. It is available at Rocca's Market in San Martin.
Photo by: Lora Schraft, Staff Photographer
The olive oil can be drizzled over fresh mozzarella and bread.
Photo by: Lora Schraft, Staff Photographer

Good things come to those who wait. Like Jeff Martin, who waited six long years to taste the fruits of his labor.

It was green. And it was good.

"Don't eat that," he said, indicating to a black cluster of olives dangling from a branch. "It will be a bad experience for you."

The olives growing in Frantoio Grove on Martin's property in Gilroy aren't cultivated for consumption. But the chartreuse-colored oil that comes from those olives, is.

A portion of the 420 gallons that went into 4,000 Frantoio-labled bottles - the first batch since Martin planted his trees in 2005 - will hit the shelves at Rocca's Market at 13335 Monterey Highway in San Martin this weekend. Each bottle contains 12.7 ounces and is priced at $20.

"The obvious choice would have been grapes; my family's been growing them for some time," said Martin, explaining the rationale that ran through his mind when he mulled over what to do with 30 acres of open land on Monterey Highway just north of Masten Avenue.

"But I said 'No. There's already a lot of grapes. In fact, there's too many grapes.' "

As it happens, olives run in Martin's family - but he was totally oblivious to this when he decided to get into the business.

Hugh M. LaRue, Martin's great-great-grandfather, cultivated olives on a farm near the University of California, Davis.

When Martin made a pilgrimage to his relative's old stomping grounds last week, he discovered a 140-year orchard consisting of several hundred trees still standing, right where his great-great-grandfather planted it in 1871.

"I didn't realize the scope of his olive involvement until I went up there last week," said Martin.

It has taken him six years, 3,500 trees and a feathery fleet of owl friends - "flying stomachs," quipped Martin, who installed nine nest boxes in his orchard so the birds could take roost and help with rodent control - to follow in the footsteps of his late relative.

Now he's seeing green.

The color, that is.

"Try this," he said, drizzling verdant-tinted oil over soft slices of French bread topped with fresh mozzarella, then sprinkling pinches of salt and ground pepper to taste.

"It's never better than when it's fresh."

The oil ran off the cheese, slowly sinking into the bread.

Martin's olives were picked Dec. 12, then sent to a mill in Livermore called Olivina. During this process a tool called a malaxer massaged the olive paste, which was then separated from the liquid by a centrifuge. The oil was bottled Wednesday.

"We milled 11 tons," said Martin. "Except for the one bin that tipped over."

He pointed to a dark patch still staining the ground.

"It was a long day."

Just like wine, olive oil has a dictionary of descriptors. For Martin's product a seasoned aficionado might throw out terms such as "nutty," "grassy," "pine," "straw" and "mildly pungent."

What Martin has is artisan, small-batch, hand-picked, hand-pruned, "stupidly expensive" to make olive oil, named for the fruit from which it came: Frantoio olives.

The olives are an old Tuscan variety with distinct flavor characteristics and an attractive, eye-catching peridot hue - nothing like the corn-colored brands lining shelves in grocery store baking aisles.

Of the 3,500 trees carpeting his land, Martin incorporated three rows of Pendolino olives and two rows are Leccino olives for pollinating purposes. The rest are Frantoio, save for the handful of elegant cypress trees planted solely for visual embellishment, plus a line of tall poplars stretching alongside the orchard's dirt drive.

Though Martin's oil hasn't officially been declared "extra virgin" - the highest standard when it comes to quality - a number of his friends who know their oil have assured Frantoio is top-notch.

"It's like I've got all my credits, but I don't have my diploma yet," joked Martin, who said he's completely confident his oil will pass the sensory test with flying colors when it's judged in March by a technical tasting panel at the University of California, Davis.

Taste is just one aspect, however.

Story, place, process and style were all given weight by Martin, who has a background in landscape architecture and wanted everything about his operation to channel a sweeping Italian countryside.

"I wanted this orchard to look nice," he said, running a hand along a branch as he walked down a row filled with clover and mustard flowers. He unfolded his fingers to reveal green, blue and black-colored olives in various stages of ripeness. The oval-shaped fruit rolled off his palm and into the grass, speckling the ground with dots of color.

Martin said the olive oil industry in California is a fairly solid movement with several hundred growers.

A common variety, he explained, with a twinge of dislike, is a Spanish hybrid planted in high density, high yield, mechanically harvested, pruned, hedged rows - precisely everything he purposefully avoided.

"They're like little manicured soldiers trying to grow in lines," he said, of the large-scale operations. "Not the big, arching, graceful, sweeping trees an old olive orchard represents."

Martin's trees, on the other hand, are picturesque with leaves shifting from a pale, bluish tone to an earthy green depending on where the sun hits. As a whole, the orchard's canopy gives off a near silver tint.

It's this sort of old school mentality - emphasis on traditional planting, visual beauty, depth and aesthetics - that compliment the charm of Martin's trade.

"Someday I'll build houses on this property," he said, gazing west. "But they'll be separated from Monterey Highway with 30 acres of olives."

In the future, Martin is considering building a mill on site in the guise of an old, stone farmhouse. He's also working on learning how to gauge variables, so he can capture various flavors by blending olives picked at different times.

Through frost damage, muddy fields and one heck of a wait, the prize at the end of the rainbow turned out to be green for Martin, who said he was shocked at the color when he first saw it, but pleased nonetheless.

"They're slow growers," he said, scanning the landscape.

"It's worth the wait, though."