How to Buy:
Georgia Olive Farms
500 ml bottle, $32
Harvest season from mid-September through October, into early spring
Very fresh flavor; sweet and smooth, with a fruity, nutty olive aroma
When you think of Georgia agriculture, sorghum, pork belly, corn, and peaches all come to mind. But a few passionate farmers are dedicated to adding Georgia olive oil to that list of products. Jason Shaw, a Lakeland, Georgia-based farmer, and his partners at Georgia Olive Farms are leading efforts to make artisanal olive oil the state’s newest culinary star.
Shaw spearheaded the first olive harvest in 2011, culling from a 20-plus-acre grove planted in 2009 to produce Georgia extra virgin olive oil. But production was limited. The team produced only 140 gallons, most of which went to their "Chef’s Blend," a 20:80 Georgia-California combination.
“We realized pretty quick we didn’t have enough for a market,” says Shaw, who also works a daytime job as a state legislator. “We were able to find a perfect match to our soil with help from a certified taste expert for our blend.” In order to produce a more justly titled Georgia olive oil—and truly break into the market—the farm is now working with other farms throughout the region to start of a sort of olive oil co-op and move toward large-scale oil production. By August 2011, Shaw says Georgia Olive Farms will sell out of their limited production, but the group helped put up new orchards in south Georgia and north Florida, expanding the co-op to nearly 300 acres.
Even with the limited availability, Southern chefs are thrilled by the über-local oil now at their fingertips. From Athens and Atlanta in Georgia to Charleston, South Carolina, dedicated chefs are using the mildly fruity, nutty product. With its sweet, smooth, and soft flavors, it pairs well with vegetables, as in Chef Chris Hall’s tangy riff on a Chinese bar snack, Blistered Spring Beans, Crispy Garlic, Lemon, and Bottarga at Local Three. As he brags, Hall was one of the first Atlanta chefs on board with Georgia olive oil, and one of the lucky chefs to snatch a bottle of the original pressing of 100 percent Georgia olives.
The oil (which Shaw describes as “just so fresh tasting”) is just as complimentary to sweet as it is to savory, as 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Pastry Chef Aaron Russell’s playfully savory dessert (and Rising Stars Gala dish) of Coffee-roasted Beets, Caramelized White Chocolate, and Georgia Olive Oil proves. It’s not surprising Russell’s Eugene boss, Linton Hopkins (one of the South’s loudest enthusiasts) is a big fan of the oil: “Linton has been a big supporter; he’s bought a ton of our product,” says Shaw. “We’ve really hooked up with some great chefs that are excited about what we are doing.”
At Anne Quatrano’s Floataway Café, Chef Christopher Schmidt adds complexity to his bright Spring Nettle Soup with a drizzle of Georgia olive oil. "Besides being local, it really is a beaitufl oil," says Schmidt. "This oil is very fresh, with a lot of aroma of fresh grass. We only use it for finishing; it would be a shame to cook with." 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Chef David Carson enhances the regional aspect of his Glazed Hawaiian Blue Prawn, Spring Vegetables, and Georgia Olive Oil Foam, a double ode to Bacchanalia owners Quatrano and Hawaii-native Clifford Harrison. (The Hawaiian Blue Prawn is the only non-Georgian item on the plate.)
Carson uses the olive oil in a foam, thinning it out with a little olive brine, to add frothiness and fattiness to the otherwise fresh, clean flavors. “We try to feature the olive oil as much as possible,” Carson says. “[Georgia Olive Farms] are the only southern producers and first to come out of Georgia.”
These chefs may be excited, but growing olives in Georgia isn’t as novel as it sounds. In 1526, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón (a sugar planter from the Caribbean) established the first colony in what is now the United States, off the coast of Georgia. Along with Catholicism, de Ayllón’s missionaries brought olive trees to the so-called (warm, but not too hot) olive belt of now-Georgia and South Carolina. And a number of influential English colonists were large proponents of growing the fruit as well, including General Nathanael Green, Thomas Spalding, and Thomas Jefferson, who as the 1789 minister of Europe fell in love with olives and oil and arranged the shipment of 500 trees to the area.
But through the turmoil of the Civil War, difficulties with the labor-intense production, and a boom of cotton seed oil, olive production in the South waned. Although numerous olive trees can still be found fruiting throughout Georgia and South Carolina, full-scale olive growth was a thing of the past.
That is until Shaw and his team started their grove in 2009. They now produce three varieties of olives and sell trees to farmers looking to get on the band wagon (including some interested blueberry farmers looking for the next big cash crop). The Arbosana olive, originally from Spain, produces pungent, fruity oil; while the Arbequina—a Greek variety, which is now the major olive tree in California and Northeast Spain—offers a more peppery flavor. The Koroneiki produces a medium-bodied oil. The Koroneiki and Arbosana generally act as pollinators, so Georgia olive oil primarily is made up of Arbequina.
Besides beefing up production and acreage, Shaw and his fellow farmers have a number of other obstacles to overcome. “When you are trying to start a new industry, and all of the consultants are from California or another country, and you can’t follow a model that works in your area, it’s tough,” says Shaw. Along with long distance relationships, the farmers also have to combat inclement weather (unlike their Western counterparts) and the time constraints of planting olive trees that take three to five years to fruit. But Shaw acknowledges “the possibilities and excitement around it far exceed the challenges.” He explains that the group hopes to not only build a state-of-the-art processing facility, but also plans to expand the state’s agrotourism with a tasting room and tour facilities.
And if Georgia Olive Farms and Shaw succeed, they will tap into a huge market growth potential—nearly 99 percent of the olive oil consumed in the United States is imported, and the remaining 1 percent is filled by West Coast producers. The U.S. consumption of olive oil has steadily climbed in the past several decades, inching up 9 percent just last year. And while Shaw and Georgia Olive Farms continue to work out the logistics of large-scale olive oil production, Atlanta’s chefs will be waiting.