One of the joys of our involvement with the food world and sustainable agriculture is the opportunity to get to know amazing places through individuals who are deeply involved with those places – who know the land and the bounty it can produce.
Last week I was introduced to the southern Central Valley by Vincent Ricchiuti, a fourth generation farmer who carries on the tradition of his family’s 100-year-old farm while issuing in new ways of thinking about value-added products. Vincent is the force behind ENZO Olive Oil Company, an award-winning organic extra virgin olive oil producer.
The ENZO Olive Oil estate occupies P-R Farms land near Madera. I arrived via the highway 99 overpass, which offers spectacular views of grapevines and olive trees set against the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. It is this idyllic image of Southern California agriculture, captured in countless postcards, that drew thousands to live in the Eden of California.
California agriculture is being forced to evolve. Pressures range from increased South American imports to rising labor costs. Vincent’s father Patrick followed Fresno State’s Agriculture Department in its experiments with high-yielding olives with interest, aware of the possibilities these machine-picked varietals offered to stone fruit. Olives additionally have a lesser demand for water, which is now a major challenge for Central Valley farmers.
There is also an ancestral tie that this Italian American family has to olive oil production. Vincent told me of the impactful trip he took to his family’s ancestral home in Bari, Italy to purchase pressing equipment. The olive milling process includes the following steps:
- Whole olives, including the pit, are first crushed by an electric hammer mill crusher and turned into a paste.
- The paste is then pumped into the Malaxer, which helps stir the olive paste and extract oil from the olive cells. After 40-45 minutes, puddles of extra virgin olive oil will begin to form on the surface of the paste.
- From there, the paste is pumped into a decanter, a horizontal centrifuge which spins at 3000rpm. This separates the solids from the liquids.
- The liquids are then pumped into an additional vertical centrifuge which operates at 7000rpm. This process separates out any remaining water from the initial olives.
- The extra virgin olive oil is now in its final stage where it is collected into tanks and ready to be bottled as Olio Nuovo (New Oil) or held in storage to allow for natural filtration.
ENZO uses three different varieties of olives. Vincent explained that he had just completed a project with Chef Tyler Florence, who was blending olive oil for the first time. The following day he learned the blend won a gold medal along with ENZO Organic Delicate at the New York International Olive Oil Competition.
Vincent is passionate about food and therefore it was no surprise that he took me to an amazing restaurant for dinner: The Annex Kitchen in Fresno, created by his friend Jimmy Pardini. The Pardinis, like the Ricchiutis, are a multi-generational local family. Jimmy worked at Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza prior to returning to Fresno to open The Annex Kitchen next to his family’s catering business. The menu speaks for itself. The Neapolitan pizzas are the real deal, and of course Vincent’s olive oil is used liberally. Vincent occasionally spends a night working at the restaurant – just because he loves the immediacy of it – and the ability to truly use his product in a farm-to-table way.
Tom Medrano, manager of The Annex Kitchen, is also a barman extraordinaire and the cocktail menu is sophisticated and wide-ranging. I thoroughly enjoyed his dark Negroni which features Cynar – an Italian aperitif that is made with artichokes. I asked what drink most reminded him of the soil of this part of the valley and he immediately responded with the fig drink below, available only in late August when figs are harvested. Below is the recipe he shared with me:
2 oz Buffalo Trace Bourbon
.5 oz maple syrup
1 large bar spoon of house made *fig preserve
1 orange segment
1 amarena cherry
2 dash orange bitters
Muddle cherry, orange & bitters
Add bourbon, fig, maple and shake well.
It certainly seems that future returns are in order, both for the fig harvest in August and to see olives pressed at the end of the year.