Textra Virgin Olive Oil

Forgive the headline, I couldn’t resist the pun. When I was home in Austin this summer, I took a few trips out to the Texas Hill Country to check out the natural swimming holes and budding agro-tourism activities. Located up on a rocky escarpment in central Texas, the Hill Country has a similar environment to southern Italy and (luckily for us) grows grapes and olives particularly well. Olive farms are becoming so popular that it’s been remarked that Texas is undergoing another oil boom (haha).

I had been to Hill Country vineyards before, but had never seen an olive farm. We stopped at Texas Hill Country Olive Company, thinking some bread and oil was a good idea before our booze tastings (it was).

We certainly did not expect to walk into their tasting room and be treated to more than 15 infused oils and more than 20 basalmic vinegars. The set up was simple and inviting: pump bottles of all the offerings are set up alongside dipping cups and bread squares. You can sample at your leisure and if you have questions, helpful staff will come over and walk you through it.

The process of making olive oil seems simple and natural, and apparently humans have been doing it for around 8,000 years. Ripe olives are harvested, sorted, and crushed into a paste, which is then gently mashed so that the olives continue to relax and release their oil. Various centrifuges are then used to separate out the solids and spin out the water. The remaining oil is filtered, bottled, and graded. (Here’s a nice visual of the process.)

My biggest question is what the heck does “virgin” olive oil mean, what does “extra virgin” mean, and why is it different from regular olive oil? Turns out these are quality grades, and extra-virgin olive oil is supposed to be made from fresh, high-quality olives, devoid of defects. It’s supposed to be produced the way I described above, without industrial refinements. Olive oil is one of the only cooking oils that does not require any chemical extraction or additives, and extra-virgin oil cannot be made with any solvents or heat, which would degrade the oil.

So basically, the process for producing extra-virgin olive oil preserves much of the nutrients that makes the stuff so famous. It’s best consumed fresh, within 1-3 months of opening, and it’s at it’s highest nutritional value before cooking, so drizzle it over salads, hummus, bread, etc.

After the tasting, we walked around the orchard and checked out the gorgeous, sage-green trees. I didn’t get to see many olives (it’s a low-yield year and harvest isn’t until October), but this is definitely a food stuff I’ll be keeping my eye on. I’m excited to see what’s next for the Texas olive industry, and I hope to get down there during a harvest to really see the full process for myself. More soon!

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Kate Kelly