On a recent warm July day, I visited Marguerite Remde, who owns the olive oil-producing Belle Farms with her husband, Steve Remde.
The pastoral location on a hill overlooking Watsonville had a Mediterranean feel. The 6.5-acre vineyard is just beginning to produce tiny green nubs that will become grapes in the fall. Yes, they grow wine grapes in addition to olives.
Farther down the path are 7 acres of silvery green olive trees. I had time to look around the 25 acres that comprise the farm before meeting Remde, a slim, active woman with a ready smile.
A farmer’s life among vineyards and olive groves is a fantasy for many, but for the Remdes, it’s a dream come true. A Watsonville local, Steve Remde was “born and raised a farmer, and had always wanted to grow grapes and olives,” Marguerite said. Steve does most of the actual farming, while Marguerite does production and sales. Their three children help with harvesting and at the farmers markets.
Planted in 1997, the Belle Farms vineyard produces grapes for pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, and syrah, which is sold to local wineries. Their 2003 and 2004 Estate Grown Pinot Noir produced under the Hallcrest Vinyeards label (Felton) won gold medals in the 2006 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
The Remdes use only sustainable methods and registered organic products in their farming. They planted their first crop of olives in 1999and reaped the first commercial harvest in 2004. The olives are harvested by hand in late fall, the fruit dropped on tarps around each tree. Oil from the olives is custom-pressed for them by Sciabica & Sons in Modesto. In 2009, Belle Farms Harvest Extra Virgin Olive Oil won a gold medal at the 2010 Yolo County Fair Olive Oil Competition.
“The bulk of the orchard is planted in Tuscan olive varieties,” Marguerite said. The main varieties are traditionally grown in Italy. Each has its own qualities of hardiness, taste, and productivity:
I asked Remde for some tips on choosing and buying olive oil. She usually steers people to California olive oils, which have a reputation for high quality. The Remdes sell only extra virgin olive oil, or “EVOO.”
“If it’s cheap, it’s not worth buying,” she said, explaining that a good olive oil has qualities of mild “bitterness, fruitiness and pungency or spiciness at the back of the throat.”
A slight “peppery finish” is an indicator of freshness and nutrition. “Ideally, a good olive oil should be used within a year,” she advised. It’s best to store your oil in a cool, dry, dark location.
The best time to buy their olive oil is during the holiday season in November and December. At that time, you can also look for olio nuovo, which is released right after harvest. The first pressing of extra virgin olive oil, olio nuovo has the most intense flavor and nutrition.
The Belle Farms “Olive Oil 101” page provides more detailed information on EVOO. There are recipes on the website, and even information on how to start your own orchard. I had some of their oil at home with a bit of balsamic vinegar and homemade bread—delicious!
You can find Belle Farms products locally at natural foods stores like Whole Foods, New Leaf and Staff of Life, and at Chaminade Resort and Michael’s on Main in Soquel. Check out their booth at the Cabrillo Farmers Market in Aptos, every Saturday.
Belle Farms LLC, 233 Peckham Rd., Watsonville