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.

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.

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.”


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