At one time, the term “liquid gold” in Texas meant something black that gurgled and spewed up from the earth. But today, it can also refer to a green liquid that flows smoothly instead of spewing, and rises up from the soil of the Lone Star State. What is it? Olive oil. Dubbed liquid gold by none other than the likes of Homer, ancient Greek athletes rubbed it all over their bodies, and countless generations have used it for food and as medicine. Many cultures attribute magical powers to the rich, oily yields of the olive, and Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike use the oil in religious rites and ceremonies.
The olive variety native to the Mediterranean basin and harvested as early as the eighth century has found its way to southern Texas and is adapting here quite well, according to Karen Lee, a partner in the Texas Olive Ranch near Carrizo Springs. Her blossoming business boasts three commercial harvests and an array of products that includes Roasted Garlic Olive Oil and the totally Texas-inspired (and unique) Mesquite Olive Oil.
Lee says the olive industry is taking off across the state, which is well suited to the Spanish Arbequina, Arbosana and Greek Koroneiki trees. The latter are used primarily as pollinators in most Texas olive orchards, she explains. “There will be 300 percent more trees planted by the end of 2010 than there were last year,” Lee says. “The business is beginning to look more exciting.”
Texas Olive Ranch and a few other concerns, such as Bella Vista Ranch in Wimberley, are producing oils. Some places, like Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, produce mainly spa, skin and soap products, along with some extra virgin olive oil and a light and tasty Olive Leaf jelly. Sandy Oaks also offers cooking demonstrations and classes on weekends.
Though Texas plants are basically the same varieties of tree that California uses, there are likely to be some subtle and not-so-subtle differences in the taste of the oils produced in each state. For example, unlike Texas, California has done qualitative analysis on its oil, Lee says. “Qualitative analysis seeks to define the terroir effect, which is the effect the soil and surroundings has on the flavors in the oil. It is like wine; the tastes come from the soil.” In California, she relates, qualitative analysis has identified “hints of tomato and artichoke from the things that also grow in the ground there.” So, what flavors will be identified in an analysis of South Texas olive oil? Mesquite and cactus? “I tend to think maybe rattlesnake and coyote,” Lee says with a laugh.
A Marriage of Smoke and Olives
Last summer, Karen Lee spent a couple of days at the Beyond Extra Virgin Olive Oil Conference at the University of California Davis Olive Research Center in Davis, California. The first day was all about the science of olive oil, but the second was spent at the Culinary Institute of America (St. Helena) watching presentations by top chefs from all over the world. Each chef had about 20 minutes to prepare three dishes. Lee noticed that most used beans and made liberal use of extra virgin olive oil to finish their creations. Lee came back and started experimenting. She already had discovered a technique to infuse the oil with mesquite smoke, and in her experiments, this turned out to be one of the biggest hits. Here’s one of her recipes:
Mesquite Smoky Beans
- beans (cannellini, pinto, black—it doesn’t matter what you use, but if you want more than one color, cook them separately)
- fresh tomatoes (preferably from a farmers market)
- fresh cilantro
- fresh lemons
- Texas Olive Ranch Mesquite Smoke Infused Olive Oil
Says Lee: “Cook beans until they are just done, not mushy. Dice some fresh tomatoes, about ½ cup per serving. Coarsely chop cilantro, as much as you can stand per person. I use a scant handful per serving. Transfer the beans with a slotted spoon to individual bowls, about ¾ cup per serving. Add tomatoes and cilantro. Add squeezed juice of half a lemon per serving. Salt. Then drench with ¼ cup Texas Olive Ranch Mesquite Smoke Infused Olive Oil.”