While vineyards are by no means new to Texas, another Italian favorite is flourishing here as well — the olive tree. The same soil and weather conditions apply, and Texas orchards have found that the Texas Hill Country is similar to other olive-growing places like Southern Europe, California and North Africa. Texas olive oils are now making a statement in the culinary world, not to mention the healthful properties they contain. Olive oil reduces cholesterol levels, prevents cardiac diseases, eases arthritis pain and digestive troubles, slows the aging process and contains vitamins, essential fatty acids and antioxidants.
There are several notable orchards around the state, but a few, practically in our own back yard, are making award-winning olive oils and setting the standards for others to do the same.
Texas Hill Country Olive Company
In 2009, John Gambini and his brother-in-law Rick Mensik began by trying to find the right olive trees and soil conditions for their orchard. They determined the Arbequina olive tree and Mission olive tree, which is actually the only olive tree native to the United States, thrive in Hill Country soil. Their orchard is certified organic and their Miller’s Blend oil was ranked in the top five in the country by the Wall Street Journal.
The orchard includes a Tuscan-inspired mill house with a state-of-the-art Italian olive press. Free tastings are available as well as private tours providing opportunities to learn about the industry and discover the proper way to grow olive trees.
Bella Vista Ranch/First Texas Olive Oil Company
Jack Dougherty was the first to recognize the similarities between olive growing regions and the Texas Hill Country. In 1998 he decided to give it a shot. Three years and 1,200 trees later, they are hand-harvesting and pressing olives in their “frantoio” (olive pressing facility). In fact, the 2013 Estate Grown Coratina Olive Oil was awarded a Gold Medal at the New York International Olive Oil Competition. Nowadays they sell several flavored and infused oils, in addition to jams (from homegrown fruits and veggies), vinegars and other culinary goodies such as wine. Speaking of wine, they also grow Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc grapes, in keeping with the Mediterranean theme, and even make a blackberry wine and other seasonal fruit wines from berries grown on their property.
You can sample wines, olive oils, jams and other gourmet foods in their tasting room, or take a tour of the orchard and olive press.
Up and Coming Orchard: Krugie’s Double O
Four years ago Jim Kruger decided to leave retail and start an olive orchard. He wanted to be ahead of the game, stating that the olive industry in Texas is where wine was 20 years ago. Planting in a non-traditional high density configuration where trees are only six feet apart, as compared to 30 feet, allows for mechanically removing olives rather than by hand. While the orchard is still about three years from production, keep this name on your radar.