N. America

Global Gardens Founder Sees Olive Tree as Keystone of California Permaculture

Long-time producer and certified sommelier Theo Stephan looks to bring her love for olive oil and the environment full circle.

Theo Stephan (Tenley Fohl Photography)
Oct. 31, 2018
By Daniel Dawson
Theo Stephan (Tenley Fohl Photography)

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Theo Stephan never stops learn­ing. The 58-year-old owner of Global Gardens has been pro­duc­ing extra virgin olive oil in and around the Santa Barbara area of California for two decades now.

In spite of all this expe­ri­ence, Stephan attended the Olive Oil Sommelier Certification Program in Campbell, CA, last September. Ahead of her twen­ti­eth har­vest, she was still hoping to glean more tech­ni­cal infor­ma­tion from the course as well as fur­ther her gen­eral knowl­edge base.

“The LA Times called me the California olive oil guru,” Stephan told Olive Oil Times. “I thought, oh I like that. I want to be the olive oil guru, so I really want to expand and have more knowl­edge behind me.”

Stephan, who has writ­ten two cook­books cen­tered on olive oil and the Meditteranean diet, jokes that she was the oldest attendee at the course but still learned a lot. Among her many inter­ests is the olive tree’s role in a sus­tain­able future for California.

“What I really want to do is become an advo­cate for cli­mate change as it relates to agri­cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly in California,” she said. “[The course] pro­vided me with cred­i­bil­ity as an edu­ca­tor, which has become increas­ingly sig­nif­i­cant for me as I’ve gotten older.”

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However, as a self-described flavor hawk, Stephan also came to the course look­ing out for new oil-food pair­ings, both for baking and cook­ing.

“I love cre­at­ing savory dishes and even baking, so explor­ing and tast­ing the dif­fer­ent vari­etals was really fas­ci­nat­ing,” she said. “I was [also] intro­duced to Frantoio and Coratina and imme­di­ately ordered some big trees.”

She plans to plant the trees on a corner of her land that she had pre­vi­ously ear­marked for more Koroneiki trees.

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“The Koroneiki olive is just my baby,” Stephan, the daugh­ter of two Greek immi­grants, said. “I was going to put in more Koroneiki trees, but I would love for our farm stand prop­erty to rep­re­sent other vari­etals and I have room to do it.”

In addi­tion to the Koroneiki, Stephan also planted Kalamata and Cerignola vari­etals, which she har­vests as table olives. She grows Mission and Manzanilla olives, as well, for her mono­va­ri­etal olive oils.

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Along with her cul­tural her­itage and pride in where she comes from, Stephan’s ado­ra­tion of the Koroneiki vari­etal is also rooted in ecol­ogy. After a spate of unusual weather at the begin­ning of 2018, many olive grow­ers across the state reported mas­sive losses in yield. The California Olive Oil Council said that this year’s har­vest would be 25 per­cent lower than last year.

“My Koroneiki [yield is] exactly the same [as last year] and that’s why I call them such happy trees. I’m not down on Koroneiki,” Stephan said. “Everything else is down, here in Los Olivos maybe by 10 per­cent. My other olive groves are prob­a­bly down by 20 to 25 per­cent.”

Unlike other bou­tique pro­duc­ers in the state, Stephan is respon­si­ble for the har­vest of about 6,000 olive trees, so she is not wor­ried about run­ning out of olive oil. However, she has not begun to har­vest yet. She said she will not start until at least the second week of November as she seeks to increase the oil con­tent of her yield.

“I’m stress­ing the trees out right now by not water­ing them at all, which I typ­i­cally do in August,” she said. “I started a little later this year because the fruit was later and I was trying to increase the size. We’ve got the size. It’s all about oil con­tent now.”

“I might even push it out fur­ther depend­ing on how much oil I feel is in the fruit,” she added. “It’s been a very odd year, I haven’t seen any­thing like it in my 20 years.”

In spite of the unusual year, Stephan sees a sus­tain­able future in plant­ing more olive trees and other flora native to the Mediterranean in California. By 2020, she plans to enroll in a local uni­ver­sity and begin pur­su­ing her Master’s degree in engaged human­i­ties.

“I was cer­ti­fied in per­ma­cul­ture last year,” she said. “I took an inter­na­tional per­ma­cul­ture course, so we will be doing what we call stack­ing and plant­ing every inch of this prop­erty in some­thing edible.”

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In the shade of her olive trees, Stephan will also plant capers, sage and laven­der. Her plan is to fill the groves with other, com­ple­men­tary, Mediterranean plants that are also resis­tant to drought. Along the way, she will start an intern­ship pro­gram for local stu­dents in order to teach them about per­ma­cul­ture as well.

“We’ll be work­ing with stu­dents on the land as well as at the farm stands, so every­thing from mar­ket­ing stu­dents to culi­nary and agri­cul­tural stu­dents will be involved,” she said.

Sustainability is a major issue in her eyes and Stephan wants to get people of all dis­ci­plines involved in advo­cat­ing for it.

Theo Stephan

“One of the things I really want to do is become an advo­cate for cli­mate change as it relates to agri­cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly in California,” she said. “California is blessed with the per­fect cli­mate for these drought-tol­er­ant trees.”

As she con­tin­ues to branch out toward new dis­ci­plines and chal­lenges, Stephan remains rooted in her pas­sion for olive oil. Her first expe­ri­ence with really tast­ing olive oil (as opposed to merely eating it) came when she was a little girl in Dayton, Ohio.

“My mother was a great baker, but it was my aunt who was an incred­i­ble cook,” Stephan recalled. “I asked her why her cook­ing was better than my mom’s one day, while I was watch­ing her in the kitchen.”

“She took out a pack of Wonder Bread buns and then she pulled down a big tin can with Greek let­ters on it from which she poured some olive oil into a bowl. She then pulled out the Crisco oil and put some of that into another bowl,” Stephan added.

“She said ‘here taste this,’ so I tasted the olive oil and it was phe­nom­e­nal. I then tasted the Crisco oil with the bread and spit it out,” she con­cluded, “My aunt said ‘that’s why my cook­ing is better than your mother’s.’ ”

Stephan has never for­got­ten that moment from 50 years ago. Her love for olive oil was forged then, perched at the kitchen counter with her aunt in that old Midwestern indus­trial hub.

It has since con­tin­ued to grow and now her love for tast­ing olive oil is begin­ning to come full circle.

Next April, Stephan will be flying to New York. She made the same flight last year when one of her oils was awarded a Silver at the 2018 New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC).

“I don’t know if I will enter [this year],” she said. “I do plan to go and par­tic­i­pate as an appren­tice there. We were invited to do that.”

Stephan has suc­cess­fully taken two things she loves — olive oil and learn­ing — and turned them into a career. Along the way, each pas­sion has helped grow the other one.

“I’ve got a five-year plan that I’m three years into here,” she said. “I started the busi­ness when I was 38 to pri­mar­ily edu­cate and enlighten people as to the aspects of real olive oil and what it can do for our bodies.”

“I’m really happy with our olive oil pro­duc­tion,” she added. “And I really love this lifestyle.”