Money doesn’t grow on trees, but olives do – just ask Anne Piccirillo.
On Friday mornings Piccirillo can be found at the Turlock Farmers Market at the intersection of Broadway and Main Street, but unlike her vendor neighbors who are selling farm fresh produce at relatively inexpensive prices, Piccirillo is peddling $12 to $20 dollar bottles of olive oil.
After having spent time on the Greek island of Crete, Piccirillo became intimately familiar with olive oil. Upon returning to the states she read about an ongoing authenticity crisis in the industry regarding imported olive oil. Many bottles of imported olive oil on the supermarket shelves bear a label with four little words — extra virgin olive oil—and while the title is sleek, it is often erroneous as more than half of the imported bottles of olive oil are compromised, thus not pure at all.
All oils are not created equal and it’s no secret to agriculture industry experts and many consumers that imported olive oil is often diluted and fraudulently labeled as Extra Virgin — a title reserved for the highest grade of oil. According to the California Olive Oil Council nearly two-thirds of oils on super market shelves are falsely labeled as extra virgin grade based on three studies performed by the University of California, Davis Olive Center.
The issue of oil integrity, while not new, has served to inspire a movement of purists such as Piccirillo who have committed to doing their due diligence to offer the public authentic and honest olive oil.
“It was such an elegantly simple process,” said Piccirillo.
Titled Athena’s Gift as a tribute to the oil’s ancient roots, Piccirillo and her husband spent two years scouring for the perfect property at which to establish their olive orchard before settling on a ranch in Gustine. The six acre property came complete with water and walnut trees which Piccirillo slowly pulled out to replace with her olive orchard. Fast forward several years later and Athena’s Gift is available at several local markets where Piccirillo can be found not only selling the oil but educating consumers about the differences between the store bought fluid and the real stuff : California grown cold pressed extra virgin olive oil.
“Olive oil is such an alien thing. So many people think of it as a boutique item. At first it was really hard to get people to think of olive oil as a usable item,” said Piccirillo.
A tough sell in a place where consumers are used to pulling out a several dollars for a week’s worth of kale, Piccirillo mere presence at the market has drawn inquisitive customers to her stand to sample the different oil varieties — many leaving with a bottle in hand.
Piccirillo is not the only one with the aim of establishing authentic and accessible olive oil as more than 400 growers across the state of California have already established 35,000 acres for extra virgin olive oil production with an estimated 3,500 new acres expected to be planted each year through 2020. A sustainable tree that requires relatively little water, olive trees are an attractive option for growers though the industry is miniscule compared to larger crops such as almonds of which there is almost 1 million acres in the state.
Piccirillo likens olive oil to wine – “they’re kissing cousins” – as each variety offers a unique essence with flavors ranging from grassy to nutty, buttery to fruitful. In Gustine Piccirillo grows Moraiolo, Ascolano, Leccino, Frantoio and Mission olives and a purist in the truest sense, Picarillo’s olives are locally pressed and eventually bottled but not blended.
“Each variety has such a unique flavor and I want people to taste the differences so I don’t just pour them all into one blend,” explained Piccirillo.
Picirillo’s olives are handpicked each season and while her inventory is not large enough for commercial stores such as Costco, she is aiming to make her product available for purchase in local stores. In the meantime, Picirillo is holding down the fort at four markets a week offering locals her olive oil and an industry education — if they ask.
“I like to keep it simple and reasonable. If they want the down-low, I give it to them,” said Piccirillo.