Pelican Hill debuts its own olive oil

NEWPORT COAST — The Resort at Pelican Hill celebrated the first harvest of its olive trees Friday by pressing some organic virgin olive oil that it hopes to use in the resort kitchen and as bottled gifts for guests.

The Newport Beach resort is dotted with 750 olive trees of Manzanillo and Sevillano varieties, the latter of which were raised in Northern California. The majority are around 40 years old, but the Sevillanos, of which Pelican Hill has 25, date back 100 years.

Mike Ahmer, the resort's landscape manager, noticed fallen olives on the resort grounds and wondered what to do with them.

"The olives were falling on our pavers and making a mess," Ahmer said. "I thought maybe we could find someone to pick them."

Ahmer then called Thom Curry, co-owner of Temecula Olive Oil Co., with a barrel full of questions, needing to know everything from how to make olive oil to tips on pruning and pest management. As Ahmer described the resort's situation, they realized that working together might be the best solution.

"He got in touch with me to see what we could do to make a nice partnership with the olives," Curry said. "We spent a year getting everything ready for this harvest. This was kind of the culmination of everything."

Old-style pressing machines were on-hand Friday evening to create the first batch of olive oil, which guests got a chance to taste. Curry explained the process to the crowd.

"Sounds like popcorn," Curry joked as he showed off a machine that gently grinds all of the olives.

With the pits still in, the machine hands the byproduct to a mixer, which then extracts the oil from the pulp and produces a pulp paste that looks similar to tapenade. The paste is placed on circular plates, which are then stacked upon a post and pressed. The oil drips through the stacks, flowing into a tube into the separator, where the oil and water are separated.

The final product, which usually is given around three months to sit, was green and cloudy, but nonetheless tasted like the real deal.

Curry said such old-fashioned machines aren't in use much anymore. Mass-produced olive oil companies use much larger ones to supply their quantities. However, he said, it's obvious that it does change the taste.

"This way we can get the freshest, fruitiest oil and capture the Old World style," said Giuseppe Lama, Pelican Hill managing director.

After the demonstration, a small group of guests were invited to enjoy the "Olive Oil Savor" menu at Andrea, the resort's award-winning restaurant. The menu features olive oil in every course — even dessert. The guests' meal included a tender veal shank, seasonal vegetables poached in olive oil and homemade pumpkin ravioli.

Diners were invited by Curry to pour a bit of the first batch of olive oil over their courses.

Chef Jamie Gwen, a Newport Beach local who has her own culinary radio show on KFWB AM 980, was very excited to be present at the first harvest.

"It was an amazing educational experience to really understand the process of how olive oil is pressed or made, and I think it adds a very unique appreciation to the artisan food movement," Gwen said. "When you realize what it takes to get the olives into the bottle, you really understand the love, joy and beauty behind the food that we delight our senses in."

Curry said the demonstration went well and that he looks forward to the partnership with Pelican Hill. He was also interested as a farmer, because Newport offers a different climate than the more arid Temecula.

"Even though you know what type of fruit it is, it differs from location to location, so it was exciting to see something in a cooler climate like this," he said. "We're excited about making more next year and continuing the relationship."

Lama said they would like to start using the locally grown oil in their food and also give them away as gifts to guests.

"When they go home they taste a little bit of us," the managing director said. "I think that is very cool."

The resort plans to explore retailing the signature olive oil in 2011. The oil is also available at the resort's restaurant and at its spa, in the form of an olive oil body polish.

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