Extra virgin olive oil used by some of the most influential chefs in the South isn't being imported from Spain or Italy or Greece; instead, it's coming from farms in south Georgia whose owners are hellbent on lessening the region's dependency on foreign oil.
For the first time since the late 1800s, Georgia farmers are growing olives to be used in locally produced olive oils, much to the delight of locavores and home cooks, as well as James Beard award-winning chefs such as Sean Brock of Charleston's Husk restaurant and Atlanta chef and "Top Chef" judge Hugh Acheson. The oil also was on display in November at the Music to Your Mouth festival at Palmetto Bluff.
Olive groves were common along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia until the late 1800s when labor shortages caused by the Civil War, the advent of inexpensive cottonseed oil and strong hurricanes robbed the region of a crop first thought to have arrived with Spanish settlers in the l500s.
The tradition remained dormant until about five years ago when the Shaw Family of Lakeland, Ga., a small town about three hours southwest of Savannah, sought to revive the crop and resume production of local olive oils.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"Our family has been in row crop-farming for a while and thought it sounded pretty innovative," said Jason Shaw, who is also a Georgia state representative. "We learned pretty quickly that if you don't take good care of the trees and keep them clean, you're not going to have a good chance of success. It was a pretty risky endeavor."
The risk paid off.
The first fall harvest only yielded enough fruit for about 500 bottles of Georgia Olive Farms extra virgin olive oil but word about the product soon spread and put a state famous for peaches and peanuts on the map for a product typically associated with the Mediterrean.
Chefs like Brock, known in culinary circles for his refusal to use ingredients from north of the Mason-Dixon Line at his restaurant Husk, were early supporters.
"What I loved about it was that it was so fresh, it was just so grassy and herbaceous," Brock told the Associated Press last year. "If you're getting olive oil that's two or three days old from the Shaws, it's something we've never experienced as American chefs. It's a whole new frontier."
That buzz helped Shaw recruit other farmers and Georgia Olive Farms is now a collective of more than 10 farms in Georgia and parts of northern Florida that span more than 200 acres.
The family also founded the Georgia Olive Growers Association to foster growth in their fledgling industry and, along with growers in Texas and California, lobby the federal government to impose stricter regulations on imported oils.
"The USDA holds olive oils made in this country to a much higher standard than the oils produced in Europe," said Vicki Hughes, the association's new executive director. "A lot of what comes into this country and is labeled extra virgin olive oil not actually extra virgin. We're just trying to even the playing field."
Domestic producers supply only about 2 percent of the olive oil sold in the U.S., with the lion's share coming from countries such as Italy, Spain and Chile, according to the International Trade Commission.
As the association seeks reform, Shaw said he and other olive growers in Georgia will continue tending their crops.
"It could get into the 80s here later this week, and we could turn very cold," Shaw said. "But our yields continue to be great year-over-year and at a certain point, no matter what you're growing, farming is farming."