Harvesting with Cobram Estate
Photography by Sarah Elliott
I have never been a traditional student. I imagine if I were to be assessed today, I might be diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, but when I was educated there was no label for my monkey brain. Throughout my school life I struggled to retain information the way my peers could, particularly surrounding science, math and statistics. As I made my way through college, this insecurity started to become a handicap. We all do it, label ourselves “less than” and then build evidence to support a case against ourselves. But it’s funny how once we evolve, those debilitating voices inside our heads fall to the wayside and are replaced by an overwhelming excitement to learn. Look, we are all hardwired differently. Ultimately our brains just need to find a different pathway – our own journey – that inspires learning. EyeSwoon has given me access to so much knowledge and information, and so many people. It has likely been my greatest educator, but ultimately it has given me access to accepting myself.
My most recent educational experience came by way of science, farming and harvesting, as I was schooled on the golden child of all foods, extra virgin olive oil. Last October I was invited to Yolo County in Sacramento, California to experience the very first olive oil harvest for Cobram Estate. Cobram is a pioneering olive oil company that first planted its trees is Australia in 1999. I was fortunate to be invited to experience the harvest of their debut crop in the Unites States. Their focus is on providing high-quality, super-fresh extra virgin olive oil at a low cost to the consumer while offering a plethora of antioxidants and health benefits. My day began in the classroom as I observed Cobram’s impressively high standards in the process and production of their product. Retention was not an issue; I do believe I was an A+ student. What really grasped my attention was the importance of time. Light, heat and oxygen are the enemies of antioxidants – from pick to mill, a brief, three- to four-hour window is ideal to provide freshness and the best flavor. After that, the oil is stored in stainless steel to further protect the antioxidants. Think about it: it’s really no different than freshly-squeezed OJ. Freshness delivers higher health benefits. I was also dumfounded by the folklore we have all been told about not being able to cook with EVOO over high heat – I learned this is just not true. EVOO has a low acidity level, so it can handle a high smoke point. What’s more – even in a 450 oven, it still retains 50 percent of its antioxidants.
As I moved on to tour the facility I was privy to seeing the olive trucks coming in straight from the fields. The olives were sorted and pressed right before my eyes at lightening speed, delivering an almost-Technicolor bright green hue and clean, pure taste. Cobram’s approach to collecting their olives is different from most. Typically in harvesting, the olives are collected when they are overripe and have fallen to the grove floor, after they’ve lost their fresh fruit flavor. It is far easier to sweep past-their-prime olives off the ground than it is to pluck them off the trees at their freshest. And this leads me to the next phase of my experience – picking the olives. We drove to the grove and before me an incredible vista of rolling hills and bright blue skies was on the horizon. It seemed to go on for miles. The precise repetition, row by row, of nourishing trees standing at attention across the vast landscape was simply breathtaking. I wove my way through the fields picking the olives by hand, even making myself an olive branch crown. I was captivated by the beauty before me. And just when I thought I had experienced it all, I got to hop onto the tractor that rides high above the grove and olive trees. The vibrating tractor shakes each and every olive off the tree and into the funnel, to be rushed off to the bottling facility. It was not only fascinating to understand this brilliant process of releasing the fruit, it was also spectacular to be at such a high point over the trees.
The afternoon came to a close with yet another surprise. We drove to a far-off point in a valley, where we came to the most magnificent swooping oak tree. Mother Nature was showing off yet again, and in the tree’s shade was the most swoon-worthy tablescape – this was to be our gathering for lunch. In the distance to the left was a farm where the produce for our lunch was grown. And to the right, as if in a picture-perfect fairytale, were the olive groves we had just visited. Before we sat down to our meal, we engaged in an olive oil tasting, not so dissimilar to a wine tasting. We sampled a variety of oils and discussed how different they felt on the palate – one had a mild sting in the throat and another was brighter and grassier on the tongue. We even sampled a cheap and mildly rancid olive oil to experience the vast difference in quality and production. As we sat down to lunch, the young and passionate Chef Kevin O’Connor shared a bit about our five-course meal. And you guessed it, Cobram extra virgin olive oil was heavily highlighted in each dish.
I cannot begin to express just how inspiring the entire day was. It was jam-packed with an unbelievable amount of knowledge (that I retained, I might add!), and it was so darn beautiful my entire body was buzzing. Cobram has found a way to capture this ripe, zesty fruit, filled with health benefits that prolongs life. I felt more alive in those fields than I ever had, and I was struck by this vitality. With deep understanding and care in creating its olive oil, Cobram is basically bottling that very vibrancy.