While on vacation in Arizona a few weeks ago, my friends and I visited the Queen Creek Olive Mill in Queen Creek, near the Apache Junction / Mesa area. What a great place and unique experience! Queen Creek Olive Mill is a family owned business with olive orchards, pressing mill, bistro, and store. The owner is also the master-blender. They grow and press olives into handcrafted extra virgin olive oil from “blossom to bottle” and it is the only olive oil producer in Arizona. Their products are of high quality, as they ONLY produce Extra Virgin grade olive oils. They offer tours, which includes a class called “Olive Oil 101″, that we really enjoyed. I never gave olive oil much thought – it is just a more healthy oil, right? I mean, I like and use it and knew it was made from olives, but other than that, it wasn’t something I ever wondered about. But, I have to say, I learned a lot and went away with a new view of olive oil!
The plan was to take the tour and then have lunch in the Bistro. But, we arrived just a tad too late to join the tour that was about to start, so we switched gears and did lunch first. It was not easy to decide what to eat…..there was a large selection and everything sounded absolutely wonderful!!! But, I finally settled on the Lucca sandwich - Herb roasted turkey breast, brie (of course, I asked that they leave the cheese off because of my allergy), sliced apple, seasonal greens, and caramelized red onion and fig tapenade (their own product) on a multi-grain ciabatta roll. Oh…My…God, it was so amazing!!! I enjoyed the caramelized red onion and fig tapenade so much, I bought two jars to include in what I had shipped home! The sandwich came with chips and olives. Now, I have to include here that I am not an olive fan…..never liked the taste of them at all. But, I decided that I really should try the ones that were on my plate because I may never have a chance to try some that were grown and processed so close to when I ate them! So, try them, I did…….and………I still don’t like olives – but, no one can say, “but you’d really like them if….”! HAHA! But, the sandwich was incredible! The bistro not only had sandwiches, but they also served made-from-scratch soups, pizzas, fresh-baked desserts, wines, and gelato and sorbetto! I didn’t have anything other than the sandwich, but Ronald tried the gelato and said it was very good!
After we ate, we still had a few minutes to browse through the store before our tour started. I decided I wanted to take some things home with me, but my suitcase was already stretched to the max and I knew the liquids wouldn’t be allowed in my carry-on! So, I asked if they would ship my purchases to me and the girl I spoke with was very excited to tell me that they absolutely would! So, I got an idea of what I wanted and then, after the tour, we went back in the store and I picked out several items and arranged for them to be shipped. When the box came, I was so happy to see my purchases — a bottle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a bottle of roasted garlic flavored EVOO, a bottle of Mexican lime flavored EVOO, a bottle of aged balsamic vinegar, a bottle of balsamic and fig flavored vinegar, two jars of caramelized red onion and fig tapenade, a copy of their family cook book, a jar of lavender-scented body cream made from EVOO, and a couple pour corks for the bottles. Yeah, I went a little crazy, but it was all so fresh and so good and after the tour I had an increased awareness and respect for EVOO, so I couldn’t help myself!
The tour was really cool…….it started outside at an olive tree where we learned all about how olives grow and are harvested and some history of olives and olive oil. We, then, moved into the pressing room where we learned how the olives are processed into olive oil and the differences between the various grades of olive oil. It was very informative and absolutely fascinating!!! I’ll go into some of what I learned, but I want to leave this paragraph with the bottom line piece of info I left the tour with…..I always bought “extra light” olive oil because I just assumed it was better for you and had a lighter taste when used on salads……after learning what I learned, I will NEVER buy anything other than Extra Virgin Olive Oil again……ever!!!
OK, so what did I learn?
- The Queen Creek, Arizona olive grove is located in an area that has ideal conditions for growing olive trees – long sunny days, cool nights, very fertile soil, and located in a flood plain. Also, by growing the trees in the dessert, there is no risk of their natural predators – the olive fly and olive tree molds – so there is no need to use any kind of pesticide or mold inhibitors!
- Olives are harvested in Arizona in the months of September thru December.
- Olive oil is made from a carefully timed blend of both green and purple olives (color denotes degree of ripeness), as well as oil pressed from the pits, so the whole olive is used.
- It takes 50 pounds of olives to make one gallon of olive oil…….no wonder it is so expensive!!!
- Extra Virgin is the highest quality grade of olive oil. In order to be graded Extra Virgin, the olives MUST be cold pressed and not undergo any treatment other than washing, grinding, mixing, gentle separation, and filtering. It also must have a free acidity level of less than or equal to 0.8% – this measures the degree of freshness of the olives at the time of pressing. To get a grade of Extra Virgin, the oil must be pure and not be refined in any way – any use of heat pressing or chemicals to extract the oils results in a lower grade olive oil. “Virgin” (without the “Extra” designation) is processed the same way, but will have a free acidity level of more than 0.8%, but no more than 2%.
- Queen Creek Olive Mill’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil typically has a free acidity level of 0.3% – pretty high quality, if you ask me! This shows their level of dedication to processing the olives as close to harvest as possible so that the oil is as fresh as it can possibly be.
- During the cold pressing process, the freshly harvested olives – pit and all – are milled into a coarse paste, which is blended very slowly in a large mixer prior to going through a centrifuge to separate the oils from the solids. Extra Virgin is the grade of oil that is extracted during this process. The fresh oil is decanted and transferred to an oxygen-free stainless steel storage decanter with a conical bottom where the oil and any remaining water can naturally separate. The oil is then blended to achieve the best taste – grassy, peppery, fruity, bitter, or buttery are all positive flavor attributes of a good batch of EVOO and blending batches with these different flavor attributes makes the perfect tasting bottle! The blended oils are stored in stainless steel tanks and kept fresh until it is bottled. They blend every 6 weeks and bottle every 3 weeks to ensure the freshest oil at the time of bottling.
- Shelf life – as long as the oil is fresh at the time of bottling, it will remain fresh for one year – opened or unopened!
- Do not refrigerate olive oil, as it will solidify. The oils I had shipped to me must have gotten very cold during shipment, because they were solid in the bottles when they arrived. But, I didn’t panic, because I remembered learning that if they do get cold enough to solidify, that you can just set them out and let them re-liquefy – that it won’t harm the oil in any way! And, sure enough, I actually watched them gradually liquefy over about an hour! Cool!!!
- Don’t let the terms “Pure”, “Light”, “Extra Light” or any other descriptor other than “Extra Virgin” or “Virgin” fool you…….they sound like high quality grades – especially the term “Pure”, but they are NOT! All grades other than Extra Virgin or Virgin have free acidity levels higher than 2% and are heat and chemically pressed. Remember the centrifuge step I mentioned above? Well, the “good” oil is procured from the front of the press and the solids and water are captured out the back of the press as “waste”. Well, the waste product does still contain extractable oils, but you can’t extract it further without heat and chemicals — so, any oil extracted through those methods are considered “refined” and can no longer be graded as any form of “virgin” oil.
- Remember my comment about always purchasing “Extra Light” olive oil? Well, that is the absolute lowest, bottom of the totem pole, grade of olive oil – the farthest end of the spectrum from “Extra Virgin”! eeeewwww…….yeah, I’m never buying it, again! In fact, I have a full, large bottle that will now be used to moisturizer my skin……or maybe I’ll just toss it out!!!!
So, that is what I learned about Olive Oil……now, we also learned a little about olives, in general! They do not process olives for sale as olives, there, but some of their grove does get processed by another partner company not far from there. Here is what I learned about olives…..which, as I stated earlier, I don’t particularly care for!
- Don’t eat an olive off the tree – it will be very bitter and must be cured before it can be eaten!
- The color of the olive is a reflection of ripeness – green olives are less ripe than the very ripe dark purple olives.
- Olive trees are harvested when the percentage of green and purple olives reach a ratio best for whatever purpose they are being harvested for – oils or olives.
- There is no such thing as a BLACK olive — black olives are the riper purple ones that have been chemically colored to give them the black appearance. They are sweeter than the green ones because they are riper.
- Olives are not naturally salty – they obtain that salty taste from the brines they are cured in.
- It takes 3-5 months to naturally cure olives in the brines. The best tasting and highest quality olives are naturally cured. The olives that were included with the sandwiches in the Bistro were naturally cured – which is why I thought maybe, just maybe, I’d like them better than store-bought ones I’ve tried in the past……..oh well, I tried them!!!
- Most store brand olives are more rapidly mass cured over 3-5 days using food grade lye and other chemicals.
So, there you have it……..everything you ever wanted to know about olive oil and olives, but were afraid to ask…….in a nutshell!!! If you ever get to the Phoenix/Mesa/Apache Junction or surrounding area, be sure to put the Queen Creek Olive Mill on your tour plans — it really is a unique experience and one I’m sure you’ll enjoy as much as I did!
** Info in this post came from my memory of what we learned in the tour, as well as from the brochures I took home with me and their website. You can click HERE to visit their website for more info or to shop online for their products! Check it out!!!!
Photos we took at the mill:
The press and centrifuge assembly
The press room is very small with just this one press and a few stainless steel tanks
Ronald and me / Ronald and Lisa
photos taken after the tour in the courtyard outside the store and bistro