People who move to California cannot seem to stop talking about how fantastic it is (the magnolia blossoms in winter, the mud baths, the Mexican food). Now they have yet another reason to brag: the olive oil. Ten years ago there were fewer than 20 artisanal olive oil makers in California; today there are more than 150, many of whom now grow their own olives, gently picking them by hand instead of roughly shaking them out of trees.
Even among this impressive bunch, Willow Creek Olive Ranch in Paso Robles stands out. A family-run business founded by a woman named Karen Guth, Willow Creek is the producer of Pasolivo, an award- winning, pleasantly grassy, Tuscan-style extra virgin. The ranch is one of the few California estates that has its own mill, which means the olives can be crushed within four hours of harvesting to get the freshest-tasting oil; the standard among California artisans is 24 hours.
During a month-long marathon that starts sometime in November, when the olives turn from green to violet, Willow Creek workers typically pick two to six tons of olives a day, including California varietals like Mission and Manzanillo as well as Tuscan ones like Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Moraiolo. Joshua Yaguda, Guth's son, works the mill from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and then from 1 a.m. until 5 a.m., moving from press to bed to press to bed. Working conditions are trying, since the pressing room has been warmed to help the oil separate, and the equipment is so loud you have to yell to be heard.
The noise, the heat and the sleep deprivation are offset by the camaraderie of friends and neighbors who drop by with meals to share in a quiet corner of the orchard. Tom Fundaro, the chef at the nearby Villa Creek Restaurant, recently brought an entire menu accented by Willow Creek olive oils, designed to fortify the family during this exhilarating yet exhausting time. Turn the page for his delicious and satisfying fall recipes.
Villa Creek Restaurant, 1144 Pine St., Paso Robles, CA; 805-238-3000.