Patti Bess: Olive oils — A taste of the Foothills |

Patti Bess: Olive oils — A taste of the Foothills

Ethan Keller selling olive oil at the Nevada City Farmers Market.
Submitted photo |

The foothills of North Yuba County are a stark, almost barren beauty this time of year. The red dirt contrasts with the slate colored granite and meadows of amber thistle. Similar to the climate of Mediterranean countries, the rocky, decomposed granite soil is perfect for growing olives.

“Our small family farm attributes its superior tasting olive oils to our unique growing terroir,” said Monica Keller, co-owner of Calolea Olive Oil.

In 1999, Monica and Michael Keller were looking for a place to settle down. They had a modest down payment and a dream. Michael wanted to buy an olive orchard, and they did. Ten acres of abandoned olive trees in Loma Rica, Yuba County. They were planted over 100 years ago in the same way the Spanish missionaries planted their orchards. Untouched for so long, the Kellers were able to use organic growing methods immediately.

The first year their company, Calolea Olive Oil, produced only 80 gallons of oil which sold to friends and family. In 2004 Monica began selling at the Grass Valley Farmer’s Market. Fifteen years and a lot of hard labor later, Calolea is still growing strong.

The Kellers’ enthusiasm level barely wavers (except occasionally after 7 p.m.). Michael manages the orchards and Monica does the marketing and selling. By the time their son, Ethan, was 3, he was often at Monica’s side. Now 12, Ethan is a star salesman and CEO in training.

Family and friends man booths at all of the Placer County Farmer’s Markets, the Pacific Farm Markets and as far away as Carson City. Monica, Ethan and Michael can still be found at most Nevada County markets. Their oils are also available at SPD, Bierwagen’s Farm Market, the Wooden Spoon, BriarPatch and Nevada City winery.

The Keller’s primarily grow Mission and Manzanillo olives. The trees are hand-picked, custom milled and cold pressed within 24 hours to create the highest quality oil possible. At each step of the growing, harvesting, milling and storing process the goal is to minimize the oils exposure to air which causes oxidation and destroys the rich variety of polyphenals and antioxidants.

Over the years, Calolea has taken home top awards from the Los Angeles International Olive Oil Competition and continues to rack up prestigious awards each year. Their Early Harvest Mission oil won two Gold medals at the 2016 California State Fair. The Meyer Lemon Oil won two silver medals in the flavored oils category.

A truly extra virgin oil contains less than 8 percent acidity. Calolea’s olive oil has been certified “extra virgin” by the California Olive Oil Council and has an acidity level of 0.13 percent. Established in 1992, the California Olive Oil Council supports local growers and sets fair standards of quality for California grown olives as well as educating the public about the health values.

When some people think of California olive oil, they assume it comes from Napa or Sonoma County. The truth is that the finest quality olives in the world (just a little prejudice thrown in there) are grown right here in the Sierra Foothills. Not so much in Nevada County but in surrounding counties of Yuba, Tehama, Placer and Butte.

Growing and selling olive oil has never been a level playing field. In January of this year 60 Minutes showcased a feature on Mafia involvement in adulterating Italian olive oils which has been going on for decades. The U.S. was a particularly easy market where adulterated olive oils could be dumped as we had no laws to protect consumers. John Mueller, author of Extravirginity, claimed on 60 Minutes that perhaps as much as 60-70 percent of the imported olive oils in this country are not what they say they are. Some inexpensive oils are actually not olive oil at all, but a blend of Turkish hazelnut oil and Argentinian sunflower seed oil which is blended with a little olive. Anyone can label a bottle Extra Virgin (the highest grade of oil). The second pressing of oil is usually heated destroying much of the nutrients and antioxidants.

“If consumers really want olive oil that has the flavor and health benefits they expect, it’s probably best to buy from local growers that you know and trust,” Monica Keller said.

On Oct. 8 and 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the 11th annual Butte County Farm Trail Passport Weekend is happening. The tour includes a variety of farms, ranches and wineries. It promises plenty of toasting and tasting. Calolea Olive Oil will be hosting at their tasting room in Bangor.

Michael Keller will again prepare specialty food pairings with Calolea Olive Oils and featuring local produce. Grass Valley’s own “Ragged but Right” band will be jamming both days. Tickets and more information are available at Contact Calolea Olive Oil at or

Kalamata Olive Appetizer

Eight ounces goat cheese (or Brie) at room temperature

Six tablespoons Calolea Meyer Lemon Olive Oil

One teaspoon dried lemon thyme or two teaspoons fresh (can also use regular thyme and a squeeze of lemon juice)

One quarter to one half cup Kalamata olives, drained and sliced

Sauté Kalamata Olives and thyme in small skillet with Calolea Meyer Lemon Olive Oil for 3 minutes. Cool slightly. Pour over cheese and serve with crackers.

An Easy Olive Tapenade

Twelve slices French baguette

Five green onions, best sections only

Eight Kalamata olives

Three tablespoons extra virgin Calolea olive oil plus two to brush on bread

Two to four cloves garlic

Two Roma tomatoes (about one quarter cup)

Two tablespoons walnuts or pine nuts

About five sprigs fresh parsley, stems removed

Brush each slice of bread with olive oil and toast for two to four minutes at 350 degrees.

Place the remaining ingredients into a food processor leaving the olive oil to drizzle over at the end. Whiz with bursting motion so as not to completely puree; spoon onto breads, warm through if you desire and serve.

Patti Bess is a local freelance writer and cookbook author living in Grass Valley. You can reach her for questions or comments at

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