Under the Texan sun

July 22, 2008 at 1:26 pm 1 comment

One of our favorite, most-used Italian cookbooks is Jamie’s Italy. This cookbook features many of the same meals we ate while in Italy (the pappa al pomodoro will change your life). You might be familiar with the chef, Jamie Oliver, who is also called The Naked Chef because he “strips” back to the essentials.

Again and again in the book, Jamie stresses that you need the best tomatoes, the freshest ingredients. He calls for fresh olive oil, as well. This presented a problem because most olive oil is imported, with a span of 14 to 17 months between the time it’s pressed and the time it arrives on the shelf. The oil is already old when it hits the supermarket, and most of the flavors and the healthful polyphenols (antioxidents) are long gone.

Imagine our excitement when a Google search for “olive oil” and “Texas” brought up Bella Vista Ranch, home to First Texas Olive Oil Company, a commercially-producing olive orchard in Wimberley, Texas!

There’s what in my olive oil?

Last weekend, Luis, my parents, and I piled into the Jeep and drove one and a half hours through the Hill Country to Bella Vista Ranch. During the noon tour, we found out that the problem with the shelf life of oil was only the tip of the iceberg. To make matters worse, Jack Dougherty, our tour guide and the man behind the olives, let us in on some disheartening news.

  • 95 percent or more of our olive oil is imported from Italy, but 96 percent of olive oil produced in Italy stays in Italy.
  • Spain produces the most olive oil, but they sell it to Italy to be bottled under an Italian label. (How’s that for marketing strategy?)
  • Olive oil is one of the most adulterated European exports. In other words, our bottles of olive oil contain various mixtures of grapeseed oil, hazelnut oil, and/or sunflower oil.

Boo. So what are a couple of cooks to do? Move to Italy? (Yes, please.) But until then, stock up on local oil, of course!

The tour and tasting

Are we in Tuscany?Jack led us on a tour of the ranch, starting with the olive trees. We learned about how the Blue Norther freezes kill the trees, and there’s not much to be done about it. Jack says during times like that, you have to be a praying man or a drinking man, and since he bottles his own wine, he doesn’t need to pray.

In the tasting room, we sampled the Alfresco Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a grassy oil with initial green notes and a peppery finish at the back of the tongue. (The reason restaurants add pepper to their dipping oil is because the oil has lost the pepper flavor.) We also tasted the Alfresco Blood Orange Oil, an oil custom-blended for First Texas Olive Oil. To create the oil, blood oranges and olives are pressed together, resulting in a sweet, intense orange flavor that’s great for using in salad dressings, on fish, or anywhere you might use citrus rind.

A couple of other tips about cooking with olive oil:

  • The good stuff (extra virgin) will create a lot of smoke when you fry with it. Jack tells us that the smoke is all of the healthful benefits burning away. Save the extra virgin for dressings, dips, and drizzling on top of food. Use the less-expensive stuff to sauté or fry.
  • Olive oil is best when used eight to nine months after it has been bottled. After opening the bottle, use within 80 to 120 days.
Jack says women read Under the Tuscan Sun and then volunteer to harvest olives at Bella Vista. Most dont find the 110-degree weather to be very romantic, though.

Jack says women read Under the Tuscan Sun and then volunteer to harvest olives at Bella Vista. Most don't find the 110-degree weather to be very romantic, though.

The tour at Bella Vista also includes a wine tasting. Bella Vista Cellars buys locally-grown grapes and presses them into Italian-varietal wines, such as Tejanti (Texas Chianti). Be sure to try the Blackberry Wine, too, which is made from blackberries grown on Bella Vista Ranch. It’s fruity without being too sweet; perfect as an apéritif (a before-dinner drink to stimulate the appetite) or a dessert wine.

Bella Vista Ranch ships orders from their online store. Tours are conducted on Saturdays and Sundays and run $10 for both the wine and olive oil tasting. Visit their site for directions and more information.


Entry filed under: Travel + places, Wine. Tags: , , , .

Heaven smells like tomatoes and basil The Leaning Pear

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. The Leaning Pear « a couple of cooks  |  July 23, 2008 at 12:44 am

    […] Bella Vista Ranch was not our only culinary adventure last weekend. After we packed up the bottles of wine and olive oil, we were on the hunt for a place to eat lunch. In the heart of Barbecue Country, bordering on Chicken-Fried Steak Ville, I was a bit worried about what we might find. I’m what Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary calls a pescatarian, meaning the only meat I eat is fish. They just added the word this year, in fact, but I’ve been eating this way long before Merriam-Webster recognized it (about three years). […]


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