Perry Rea Owner, Master Mixer Queen Creek Olive Mill 25062 S. Meridian Road, Queen Creek 480-888-9290 www.queencreekolivemill.com
This week in Chef and Tell we headed out to Queen Creek to find out how to make extra virgin olive oil. Since 1998, Queek Creek Olive Mill has been making EVOO right here in Arizona, and that's in no small part thanks to Perry Rea, the mill's owner and master mixer -- which means he's the guy responsible for making sure the oil tastes the same from batch to batch and harvest to harvest. Be sure to come back for part two of the interview Wednesday when he tells us how to shop for true EVOO.
"The bloom is starting already, which is really early," says Perry Rea as he examines a tiny white bud on one of his olive trees.
It's true, you can see the white flowers starting to appear on the trees -- which actually look more like bushes since they stand only a few feet off the ground. This grove, as Rea explains, is an experimental one planted recently to test a new method of harvesting. In the area immediately surrounding the mill and retail store, there are just under 100 acres of olive groves with 35 dedicated strictly to the production of extra virgin olive oil.
Rea started the Queen Creek Olive Mill as a hobby in 1998, but in the years since, it's grown into a pretty big operation. It's the state's only producer of EVOO but also makes a variety of olive and culinary products, including tapenades, vinegars, and soon, a line of barbecue sauces. About 75 percent of the olives used in the Queen Creek oil are grown somewhere in the state of Arizona, with the remainder coming from farms in California. Rea says he hopes to be able to use only Arizona olives by next year.
Because of this year's particularly warm winter, many of the olive trees will be in full bloom in about three weeks. And the fruit will be ready to harvest in about mid-October. The olives will be ripe until mid-December. It will be up to Rea to decide how long he wants to leave the fruit on the trees.
"Time of harvest is the most important factor in determining an oil's flavor," Rea says. "And every harvest is going to product a slightly different flavor."
Once Rea decides the time is right, the olives will be harvested by hand. (There's new technology that allows for mechanical harvesting but requires the trees to be planted differently than in traditional groves.) The olives have to be pressed within 24 hours of being picked, so it's essential that Queen Creek harvests only as much fruit as its mills can handle.
"This is my Ferrari," Rea says of the OliveMax 33 mill that sits in the back of the restaurant and retail space.
Once the olives have been defoliated and washed, they're put into the mill, which can process 2.5 tons of fruit per hour. Queen Creek uses a cold-press method that begins by crushing the whole olives into a paste. The paste is then spun in a large mixer for about half an hour to allow the oil to separate from the solid matter. It then gets pumped into a centrifuge that spins the oil out of the paste. At this point, a small amount of organic matter will be still be present, but it gets separated out when the oil is left to decant in large stainless steel containers.
"Then I get to do my mad scientist thing," Rea says.
Each of the oils will have a slightly different flavor -- due to a number of factors, including the type of olive and time of harvest -- so it's up to Rea, an olive oil sommelier, to blend them together to achieve certain profiles. Queen Creek bottles oil about every three weeks, which requires Rea to mix and adjust the recipes about very six weeks.
Favorite childhood food memory: Friday pizza night at home growing up. My mom would make four sheet pans of homemade pizza for me and my brothers.
Your culinary guilty pleasure: Chocolate birthday cake. It was also our wedding cake recipe. Now it's made with our chocolate olive oil.
My current obsession is: Good osso buco!
Five years ago: I was in Italy tasting wine with Tuscan winemaker Antonio Sanguineti, following him on his motorcycle forging our first Partners in Passion Partnership.
One national/international restaurant I want to try this year: Each year, our family takes a trip to an international destination to gain inspiration for new products and ideas. This year, we will be travelling to Sarnico, a small lakeside village on the shores of Lago D'iseo in Lombardi, Italy.
One local food producer I admire and why: Nick Ambeliotis of Mediterra Bakehouse, who supplies the Mill and all our stores with freshly baked artisan bread. He is the real deal!
Your favorite things to eat and where you like to get it: Real tomatoes from my home garden, with fresh-made mozzarella and drizzled with my EVOO.
If you could invite any five guests to a dinner party, who would they be?: First of all, I would have to invite more than five because there are seven of us in my family. A bunch of my close chef friends. It would be a big party. By the way, I would make them cook using my EVOO!
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One book everyone should read and why: Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller. Great facts and insights about the olive oil industry.
Favorite movie and why: A Walk in the Clouds. It was the inspiration for the Olive Mill.
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