Romancing the Olive

Could this tiny, ancient fruit become Maui’s next big thing?

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maui olives
1. Kathy Parrish, Sandra Florence, Terry Moore and Makana (yes, that Makana) with Frontoio olives from Polipoli Orchard. 2. Janet and George Allan pick fruit from pruned branches at Ali‘i Kula Lavender Farm — under Buddha’s watchful eye. 3. Randy Wagner Rixey takes a relaxed approach to harvesting. 4. Jamie Woodburn and Erin Frampton Diaz load the mill for processing at Calasa Gulch olive mill. 5. Sal Diaz shows off some of Maui’s first-ever milled olive oil. 6. The author displays her crate of hand-picked olives at Polipoli Orchard.

Growing Interest

The last few years have seen a groundswell of interest in olives. In early 2016, Paul Vossen was invited to Maui to speak about olive farming and the production of olive oil. Vossen is an internationally recognized expert, a judge at respected olive-oil taste competitions. The University of Hawai‘i’s Maui campus held the seminar, anticipating about a dozen participants. More than fifty farmers crowded the small classroom.

Among them were Sal and Erin Diaz, two of the earliest olive growers on Maui, who launched a commercial-sized orchard on their Olinda property shortly after Maui Olive Company started. The Diazes and Jamie worked together to secure a mill large enough to serve the island’s burgeoning olive community. That mill was sourced in Italy, and purchased last fall — not quite in time for the first harvest.

Maui-Olive-Oil-PressingThe Harvest

Jamie and Sal expected the Maui orchards to follow the pattern of California, Spain and Italy, whose harvests usually happen in November. September caught them by surprise: Maui trees were laden with ripe olives. The two men called family and friends to help, and dozens of folks volunteered, excited to be part of the first commercial olive harvest on Maui. The camaraderie energized us, as we learned hands-on what it takes to literally pick a ton of olives.

Maui-Olive-Oil-SampleFor the best oil, olives must be milled within twenty-four hours of harvesting, but Maui Olive Company’s commercial mill was still wending its way from Italy. Alan Battersby came to the rescue, lending his personal mill to the task. Jamie made sure all the island’s olive farmers knew that a milling would take place the next day. Olives came in from seven different farms. Ali‘i Chang hadn’t lived to produce his own olive oil, but Jamie organized a crew to harvest Chang’s olives as well.

Maui Olive Company sent a sample of that first pressed oil to the Mondavi Center at UC–Davis. Tested against USDA standards of not more than .8 grams of oleic acid (a fatty acid) per 100 grams, it was found to be “of the highest quality.” When Paul Vossen concluded his Maui seminar with an informal tasting, the last to be tasted was Maui Olive Oil. It was a white-knuckle moment, until we saw the smile. “You need to enter this in competition,” he told Jamie. “This is award-winning oil.”

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