Northern Baja California is emerging as another regional producer of gourmet quality olives and olive oils.
Olives were first introduced to North America by Franciscan priests, who were sent over from Spain and used them as one of their tools to Christianize the various populations of indigenous people that they encountered as they slowly worked their way north from La Paz, Baja, into what is now the state of California.
Although some might not embrace the spirit in which olives were first introduced to this area, they eventually became an important part of the southwestern cuisine.
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Today, northern Baja California is emerging as yet another regional producer of gourmet quality olives.
Olives that are grown in this sunny, arid climate offer a rich, uniquely flavored fruit that expresses peppery overtones.
In fact, one Baja producer, Bodegas de Santo Tomás, earned two Gold Awards at the prestigious New York International Olive Oil Competition this year for their Sevillano and Ascolano monovarietals.
The two types of olive trees most commonly grown in Baja are the Mission, which is primarily used for making oil, and the Manzanita that produces fruit for preservation in casks, jars or cans.
Both are usually planted on unirrigated hillsides, while the vineyards that are often found adjacent to the olive groves are cultivated in the rich soil of the valleys, and are irrigated with drip lines.
Locally produced virgin oils that are extracted from these olives render an epicurean product that enhances the flavor of virtually everything it touches, whether it be on a light salad, a wood-fired pizza or in a robust Sicilian-style pasta sauce.
They also offer the perfect complement to the plethora of recipes in the newly popular “Baja Med” cuisine, which has been celebrated by notable chefs such as Rick Bayless and Anthony Bourdain after their visits to the region.
The commercial table olives that are grown north of the border in the state of California are often produced by larger farms and processed by huge, corporate food purveyors.
On the other hand, the fruits and oils of Valles Guadalupe and San Antonio de las Minas just northeast of Ensenada are truly manifestations of the passion and artisanal dedication inherent to the small, family-run operations that produce them.
Best of all, the olive oils made in northern Baja can be purchased at the source for a mere fraction of the prices commanded by high-profile Mediterranean brands imported into the United States.
That is the somewhat ironic conclusion to this story.
When subjected to comparison testing by astute food critics, the unique flavor character of Baja’s olive oil often ends up being preferred over other internationally sourced varieties by a sizable margin.