It's good to push your boundaries once in a while, and recently, I tested the limits of how far I'd travel for this column.
The answer? About 40 miles from downtown Phoenix, to the southeastern reaches of Queen Creek.
I know, I know that's a hike for just about anybody, a definite investment in time and gas money. But trust me, I wouldn't bother sending you all the way out there if the destination wasn't worthy. Whether you're interested in olive oil, local agriculture, or just eating a decent sandwich, the Queen Creek Olive Mill makes for a novel foodie field trip. I can't wait to take my olive oil-obsessed mom there the next time she visits.
Owners Perry and Brenda Rea got started eight years ago, originally making cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil just for friends and family. That soon blossomed into a business with restaurant clients across the Valley; a retail store that sells oil, gourmet olives, tapenades, and a line of olive oil-based body products made by the Reas' three teenage daughters; and, as of April, a casual cafe called del Piero at the Mill.
Nowadays, the popularity and cachet of Queen Creek Olive Mill's olive oil is apparent in the sheer variety of places where it's sold. I've seen it at the downtown Phoenix farmers market and at AJ's, on the shelves at Pane Bianco, and even at the Valley Ho spa boutique, displayed right next to high-end aromatherapy candles. And as more restaurants follow the lead of top fine-dining establishments, where producers of local ingredients are mentioned in the menu descriptions, it seems like everybody's name-dropping Queen Creek Olive Mill these days.
I'm not surprised it's good stuff. The mill's signature product, Tuscan Estate extra-virgin, is the kind of aromatic, intensely flavored oil that goes best with a soft hunk of fresh bread to soak it up, or maybe drizzled on some ripe tomatoes. The flavor is fruity, with a hint of grassiness and a mildly peppery kick. When I found out that I could tour the place where they make it and grab lunch, too I was psyched.
The first time I visited the olive mill, I really didn't know what to expect it was just so far off the beaten path. I'm no fan of sprawl, but the drive was an interesting insight into the Valley's agricultural past, as well as its recent real estate frenzy. Off the Santan 202, I passed green fields dotted with neat stacks of hay, and small farms that gave way to new developments, where piles of tiles were laid out on the roofs of unfinished homes. As I headed farther east, the jagged outlines of unfamiliar mountains came into view. I saw fully fleshed-out communities right across from sleepy expanses of farmland and, of course, the enormous shell of a future Wal-Mart. Eventually, I drove by Schnepf Farms and knew I was almost there.
By then, I had definitely worked up an appetite, and so had my dining companions, who gamely volunteered to meet me for lunch on their day off. I'd envisioned olive groves next to the mill, although Queen Creek Olive Mill's 1,200 trees are actually set on 20 acres that are visible in the distance. However, there's another small grove of five-year-old trees right in front of the freestanding building that houses the mill, del Piero, and the retail store. Someday, those trees will provide a shady respite for lunch, but in the meantime, there are several umbrella tables out on the front patio next to a cute vegetable patch as well as tables inside.
Del Piero's menu was simple, picnic-friendly fare, with a handful of basic salads pasta, caprese, caesar, and a seasonal garden salad and 10 different sandwiches, plus several flavors of gelato. There were a few predictable sandwiches, such as a mozzarella, tomato, and pesto model, but what caught my attention were so many unusual, tasty-sounding ones, made on artisanal breads from Willo Bakery, and using meats from The Pork Shop, which is just up the road from the olive mill. (Matt Pool drives out there all the time to purchase that kickass bacon and sausage he serves at Matt's Big Breakfast.) Even the obligatory grilled cheese was impressive, with warm, tangy cheddar, fontina and provolone in every bite.
The Mission was essentially pan bagnat (tuna niçoise in sandwich form), a golden baguette stuffed with tuna, olives, potatoes, red onion, tomatoes, spicy green beans, chopped egg, and mixed greens. Meanwhile, the Lucca was a spunky combo tucked into whole wheat ciabatta. It had smoked turkey, creamy brie, and savory-sweet caramelized red onion and fig tapenade, punctuated by fresh watercress and tart slices of green apple. I was excited to find two of the distinctive ingredients the spicy beans and the tapenade in the retail part of the store, meaning I might actually hope to replicate these sandwiches at home.
Not sure if I could copy the panini, though. Something about the light, crisp texture of the grilled focaccia seemed impossible to achieve without a real Italian press. Who knows? All I can say is that they were very good. The Pendolino had a nice variety of roasted veggies, a layer of fontina, and a generous amount of arugula all complemented by a little balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of that killer extra-virgin olive oil. Even better was the decadent Arbequina, made with thinly shaved smoked beef, provolone, caramelized onions, tomatoes, and some sweet red pepper olive tapenade.
After lunch, I skipped the gelato and headed straight for the tasting counter in the retail area, where I sampled Queen Creek Olive Mill's different flavored olive oils (everything from garlic- to blood orange-infused oil), nibbled on crackers spooned with peach caponatina, and gobbled up all kinds of olives. I especially liked the Maytag blue cheese and the mesquite-smoked almond-stuffed olives, and am already plotting a martini party. You can sample pretty much anything in their product line, then fill your shopping basket with goodies.
Sure, you can find their products closer to home, but after making the drive to Queen Creek Olive Mill, you just can't leave without some souvenirs.
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