Meet Alison Carroll, who lives in the beautiful Joshua Tree desert. She and her husband Jay started and run Wonder Valley Olive Oil and make a spicy, rich, beautifully colored EVOO. We met with Alison in her kitchen to talk about food, desert life, and how the olive oil gets made.
Sweet Paul: Most people don't wake up one morning thinking, “I’m going to start my own olive oil brand.” How did Wonder Valley come about?
Alison Carroll: Prior to starting Wonder, I was
the marketing director for the California Olive Oil Council in Berkeley. My role was to act as an industry advocate for the over 400 producers in the state and to oversee a professional taste panel to certify olive oil as extra-virgin grade (or not). It was an immersive, incredible experience in this niche and growing world of domestic olive oil production, and it led us to start our own.
SP: What goes into producing an olive oil?
AC: There is the maintenance of the trees; heavy pruning so the trees produce new shoots and bear fruit; and (organic) fruit fly prevention. But the trees in general are incredibly hearty. For our trees, located in Northern California’s Lake County, we practice dry farming, meaning no water is added, only what mother nature provides from rain and the fog that rolls off Clear Lake alongside of the grove.
Most of the defects, the things that occur during production that disqualify an oil from being extra-virgin grade or not, happen during the milling process. The equipment needs to be properly clean and at an appropriate temperature; the fruit needs to be handled with extreme care; and the fruit needs to be milled within a few hours of picking or the olives will begin to internally ferment and lead to a lousy olive oil.
For Wonder Valley Olive Oil, our harvest looks a bit like this: Around early November (depending on the year), the fruit begins to ripen and the green olives begin to blush with purple hues. At this point, we like to harvest while the fruit is underripe. Our crew uses mechanized rakes to expertly shake loose the fruit from the tops of the trees and collect in nets below. The fruit is placed in crates and processed that day at the mill by our master certified miller. The fruit is processed through a hammer mill (modern milling equipment), then through a malaxer to separate the olive flesh from the liquids. Then a centrifuge separates the vegetal water from the oil, and finally it is racked to remove sediment. We are able to get our oil to our customer within 10 days from picking the fruit off the trees at the start of the season.
SP: The Wonder Valley oil is a bit spicy. How do you get it like that? Is it a brand of olives?
AC: That flavor comes from two things: the varietals of olive and how underripe we pick. Ours is a blend of five different Tuscan olive varietals, which have a bit more intensity and robustness than other types. But mainly it is because we are picking our fruit so green, which does three things: 1. Intensifies the flavor 2. Gives more polyphenols (antioxidants) 3. Makes for a longer shelf life. For taste, that greenness gives us this herbaceous, peppery, grassiness that makes our oil pop when using it in a kitchen, especially against softer flavors like creamy cheese, citrus in salads, avocados, or against bread and pasta. It fortifies pestos and marinades and sauces to give a bit more of a kick.
That spiciness is also an indicator of a high concentration of polyphenols, which are the free radical-fighting antioxidants associated with it, and what make extra-virgin olive oil such a superfood. These polyphenols, along with our matte black bottle, give our olive oil a bit of a longer shelf life than the average olive oil before it begins to fade. Letting the fruit fully ripen yields a very soft, buttery olive oil. It is also a bit easier to harvest, since the fruit falls off the tree and has a higher oil content at that stage. But it’s worth the extra labor for us.
SP: What’s your favorite way to use your oil?
AC:We have a common snack around our house: a half an avocado, a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of salt and a spoon. It’s such brain fuel with all these healthy fats and takes seconds to put together. I also like to grill a few pieces of bread, rub a super fresh tomato
into the crust of the bread, salt, olive oil. So good! I have a little herb garden I’m growing so all of the soft herbs like dill, cilantro, parsley chopped up with capers, lemon zest, olive oil is absolute perfection over a grilled piece of meat or fish. Also, we just take it as a shot in the morning and night by itself for all those delicious health benefits.
SP: Your home is so inspiring. How did you find it? Did you have to do a lot of work on it?
AC:Jay and I bought our home almost four years ago. We had been trying to buy a home in Joshua Tree for a couple years, but it can be pretty competitive out here. Our good friends, Steve and Glen, tipped us off to a boarded-up house down the road from them, the worst house in the best neighborhood. We wrote a letter to the owners and
a few months later it was ours. We’ve spent the better part two years rehabbing and building to create this home, all tailored around our interests and how we spend our time. So there’s a really functional kitchen both indoors and a wood-burning kitchen outside, since we cook all the time here. And this time of year, the outdoor bathhouse is my favorite edition.
SP: Why Joshua Tree?
AC: The access to nature, the open landscape that gives so much physical and mental space for creativity and building and dreaming big. The low
overhead, which allows us to work for ourselves, how and when we want to. The incredible and inspiring creative community that continues to grow out here. The pace of a rural community. The easy access to L.A. that makes it logistically possible for a lot of projects and production. And we have a national park in our backyard!
SP: What’s next for Wonder Valley?
AC: Developing the olive oil-based, unisex skin care collection and a few new products. Redesign and newness coming to our Oil Shop retail space in downtown Joshua Tree. It’s been a year of planning and designing, andI can’t wait to share what we’ve been cooking up with the world.
juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 clove of garlic, grated
pinch of salt
1⁄3 cup Wonder Valley extra-virgin olive oil approx.
1⁄3 cup pecorino cheese, grated freshly ground pepper
2 cups baby kale and spring lettuce mix
1 small head of radicchio, thinly sliced
1/2 cup snap peas, trimmed and sliced on a diagonal
2 avocados, sliced
2 tablespoons fresh dill,
fresh pepper to taste
- For the dressing, in a small mixing bowl, combine the lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, and salt. Allow to macerate for a few minutes.
- Slowly drizzle the olive oil in the bowl, whisking constantly.
- Stir in the grated cheese and freshly ground pepper. Taste and adjust if needed.
- For the salad, in a large salad bowl, mix the greens and radicchio together with the snap peas.
- Add the dressing to the greens, and gently toss with your hands to combine.
- Add avocado slices and dill.
- Add avocado slices and dill.
Made it? Tell us about it–