When I discovered locally produced olive oil, I felt at once relieved and surprised.
Relieved, because I’d just challenged myself to two weeks of going to extremes to eat locally, and I knew the stuff could do wonders for eggplant.
Surprised, because frankly I thought it was illegal.
At some point, I’d gotten the lowdown on desert no-nos, which I was told included pestering Gila monsters, chopping down saguaros and — though I knew not why — giving in to the temptation to import an olive tree.
Eager for clarification and cooking oil, I headed for Queen Creek Olive Mill, a place that boasts being Arizona’s only working olive mill and farm.
After an 80-mile drive up Interstate 10 and through the outskirts of Chandler, I ended up at a nondescript warehouse structure with a big parking lot out back. Inside, a woman pointed me toward a glassed-in room, the site of a lively and informative mill tour that culminated with everyone taking a swig of cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil to experience its fruitiness, grassiness and peppery finish.
An olive oil tasting. Who knew.
After the tour, our guide told me that the mill owner, Perry Rea, is a gentleman farmer in the truest sense. As evidence, she told me he has a hat so big it shades his toes. Later when I shared this compliment with Rea, he chuckled and offered his dirty gardening hands as evidence to the contrary.
Rea previously worked as the president of a big automotive company based near Detroit. About 10 years ago, he and his wife and four kids (plus one on the way) moved to the Phoenix area for a change of pace. They tell people they traded motor oil for olive oil.
That’s how it should be, I guess,
since Rea is about as Italian as you can get. His parents both emigrated from the Mother Country, and although neither of them could claim an olive estate in the family line, they certainly always knew that butter is no substitute for the ancient fruit.
So when Rea reached Arizona and discovered olive trees growing here — Did people not get the No-nos Memo? — he began to daydream about possibilities.
The ex-executive did some research and discovered that the Queen Creek wash south of Phoenix has a microclimate just right for olives. The dry, fertile soil there gets a touch of winter frost as in parts of Spain, Greece and Italy where people have produced olive oil for thousands of years.
It should be noted that Arizona doesn’t have much to brag about in the olive department. Over the years, a couple of companies have tried olive curing, and in the early 1990s, the Gila River Indian Tribe agreed to provide olives from its groves to the Phoenician Olive Oil Company, which planned to produce oil on a large scale. The venture failed, as did the company.
But Rea didn’t care about any of that when he first spotted the olives. He just wanted a hobby grove, one that would satisfy the oil needs of his gallon-a-month family.
So he bought some land, acquired equipment and set about learning a brand-new trade. By 2004, he had his first oil batch.
Rea’s hobby might have reached a plateau right then had it not been for a certain guy he played hockey with — Beau MacMillan, the highly regarded executive chef at the luxury spa known as Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain.
One day, the conversation turned to food, and the chef showed interest in Rea’s olive-milling endeavors. Naturally, Rea gifted him with a gallon.
Well, MacMillan liked the oil, and chefs tend to talk to other chefs, so before Rea could say, “extra-virgin olive oil, first cold pressed,” he had several Phoenix restaurants eager to be his customers. (Now there are 175.) Anyway, that’s when the media got involved and people started calling Rea at his home to see if they could tour his groves.
So in 2004, Rea opened a gift shop. Two years later, he started offering formal tours. And in 2007, he opened an Italian restaurant, del-Piero at the Mill.
Long story short, the ex-executive’s private hobby rather abruptly turned into the full-fledged agritourism adventure that it is today, with people streaming through steadily for a lesson about olive production and nutrition followed by a good Italian meal with spirits.
One setting that Rea offers for the wining and dining part is a shady, green olive grove — which brings me, in a roundabout way, back to the question of olive tree legality in Arizona.
Yes, the No-no Memo was right. There is a ban on importing and selling common European olive trees in many parts of the state, including Queen Creek and all of Pima County.
It seems ordinance passers in the 1980s noted the nasty allergenic pollen on fruiting olive trees — a popular landscaping choice at the time — and decided enough was enough. People were supposed to move to Arizona to get healthy, not to sneeze more. So somebody came up with a non-fruiting olive cultivar, and that was that.
But luckily, the ban doesn’t extend to farmers. So happy picnicking.
QUEEN CREEK OLIVE MILL
Location: 25062 S. Meridian Road in Queen Creek
Tours: Hourly from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays and 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Harvest: Mid-October through mid-December (oil is bottled year-round)
Local sources: A.J.’s Fine Foods, Tucson Farmer’s Market at the southeast corner of River Road and Campbell Avenue from 8 a.m. to noon Sundays
Farming Practices: “Arizona’s climate affords us the luxury of not using pesticides or mold inhibitors in our grove, so there is absolutely no lingering pesticide or residue of any kind on our olives.” (from Web site)