Olive Fest 2015: Let the good times flow

San Benito Olive Festival

A couple thousand connoisseurs in search of a delicate chardonnay and others out for an adventurous Saturday afternoon in the country were not disappointed at the third annual San Benito Olive Festival.  
As the visitors strolled through Bolado Park all decked out in white canvas tents, they were treated to gourmet chef cooking demonstrations, an astonishing variety of olive oils and wines, tasty treats ranging from tacos to cupcakes, and a dazzling array of arts and crafts. All the while, they heard the do-wop harmonies of the Flashbacks singing group, guitar licks and singing of Change in the Weather, and the 60s hits from David Huboi and The Architecturals.
Kathina Szeto, owner of San Benito Bene in Hollister, and the founder of the festival, said the event is a celebration where foodies and families can come to partake in samples from local growers and producers, such as Oils of Paicines, Brigantino Olive Oil, Guerra Cellars, Calera Wine, and Fortino Winery, as well as from outside the area from the likes of Moon Shadow Grove in Oroville and Papa Joe’s Spicy Products from Paso Robles.
“The San Benito Olive Festival came out of the amazing agricultural history and expertise of the growers in our area,” Szeto said. “We wanted to have local, award-winning growers. We also wanted to invite our neighboring growers and creators. It’s a celebration where we can all learn and create, and share with each other what’s happening, and provide our visitors the opportunity to talk to the growers about the health benefits, the processes, and to understand the differences between what’s called ‘local’ products and those that are purchased in general stores.”
She believes people have a greater appreciation and understanding for that bottle of olive oil or wine after they’ve had a chance to hear a grower’s story about their choices in the ingredients, the soil and the labor that goes into producing it.
One such grower and producer is the Brigantino Olive Oil (www.brigantinooliveoil.com).
The Brigantino family is ubiquitous in San Benito County, with business ventures in real estate, farming, ranching and irrigation. After World War II, Chris Brigantino’s parents moved to Paicines to start up a cattle ranch. Eight kids later, the family moved into Hollister and started growing apricots and walnuts. Olive oil is only their latest venture.
“My brother, Dave and I, were looking to do something a little different, so we partnered with San Juan Oaks because they wanted to do something a little different at their entrance to the golf course,” Brigantino said. “We decided to plant 12 acres of olives there.”
Nine years ago, they imported 2,000 trees from Italy. They harvest the crop and then take it to Pietra Santa for pressing.
“This is the Tuscan variety,” he said of the bottle of olive oil he was holding. “There are four varieties and they’re all organic. It comes right off the trees, into the press and then the drums and we bottle it ourselves. There’s nothing infused. Those four varieties together is our blend. We have so many trees of each one.”
Marco Jauregui, general manager of Trabia Farms (www.trabiafarms.com), said the farm has 3,000 trees in Paso Robles, and has been coming to the festival for the last two years.
“We press our own olives and it’s all organic,” he said. “We use different mixtures of olives to get the different flavors, which also depends on when you harvest the olives, as well as the soil and the temperature. Like wine, the oil from a harvest can differ from year to year due to the elements. If you want a little bit of the bitterness, you harvest a little early. You have to work in order to get the same flavor all of the time.”
Big Paw Olive Company (www.bigpawsales.com) is a different breed of producer. Out of Campbell, near San Francisco, Bryan Saba, who doesn’t even own an olive grove, started the company in 1996, almost out of happenstance.
“We started out by infusing some wild sage into olive oil and gave it away as Christmas gifts,” he said. “One of the recipients was a restaurant owner. He liked it and immediately asked for five cases.”
Saba immediately launched Big Paw and represents a number of small, family-owned farms in the state.
“Instead of being dedicated to one particular olive orchard, we are able to bring several farms’ olive oil into our facility in Campbell, where we do all of our bottling, infusing, marketing and distribution. On any given day we have around 45 varieties. I like to tell people we’re the Baskin Robbins of olive oil because we have a good selection of not only plain olive oil, but infused olive oils, all the way down to balsamic vinegars.”
In addition to selling online, he said his products are sold through 35 Whole Food Stores in the Bay Area, 12 Farmers Market Stores in California, and 300 grocery stores on the East Coast.
As to why he has come to the San Benito Olive Festival for three years, he said: “Part of our core business is educating our customers about our products. Olive oil, in general, is new to most people, so we’re trying to educate them on how to use it and its health benefits.”
Of course, when attendees start roaming through the festival, they eventually wander through the artisan camp. Local resident, Tina Stopper, Fyrecraker Designs, who works at the Hollister Municipal Airport, creates unusual jewelry not only from stones, but airplane turbine blades.
“I design everything and they’re one-of-a-kind pieces,” she said. “This is my second time here. I do local boutiques and events and enjoy creating new things for people. I just started selling online, on my Facebook page (https://goo.gl/QkjBLN), so I put up pieces as I design them.”
When people came looking for olive oil or wine, “felting” was probably not something they expected to find, or even know what it is when they look at it. Imaginatively dressed Susan Shirley, from Aromas, the owner of Mosshollow Design, who is normally found at fantasy or science fiction events, was invited to the olive festival to show her felting products.
“Felting is an ancient art form and most people don’t know about it,” she said. “Most people associate felting with knitting or crocheting and then shrinking it with hot water.” She pointed out several wool items on hangers. “This is wet felting, needle felting and nuno felting, all of which involve working raw fleece using water, soap, friction or pulling.”
Shirley, who is a sixth grade teacher in San Jose, practices felting part time. She sells mainly locally and online (www.etsy.com/shop/mosshollow). She said people who are not “fiber artists” don’t understand the amount of effort that goes into producing clothing through the felting process.  She said one of the organizers of the olive festival spotted her booth in Aromas and told her she should come to the olive festival.
“She said they would love for me to be a part of the event,” Shirley said. “So here I am.
Festival Continues to Grows
Modeled after the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, Szeto said the festival has grown each year and it is hoped that within five years it will expand to a two- or three-day event that will have more competitive events and wine dinner series. She said more than 1,000 people attended the event in 2014 and she was anticipating between 1,500 and 2,000 this year.
“It’s been amazing and a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s been a welcoming affair and we want to bring a lot of people in from the Bay Area and Monterey. We’ve had people coming from up and down California, and with the great help of the marketing team they’ve extended our reach to those who might be coming from abroad who, if they happen to know there’s an olive festival here, will be more likely to come.”
She attributed the degree of success to the board members who joined and then formed committees to take on various responsibilities.
“As a nonprofit organization our goal is to build awareness and appreciation of the local agriculture and culinary arts with the net proceeds going to the nonprofit,” she said.
Szeto said word is getting out that it is a festival for chefs of all ages.
“This year our lineup of celebrity chefs was truly fun,” she said. “We kicked it off with 9-year-old Alexis Higgins. She was a contestant on Fox’s Junior Master Chef and was also a contestant at the Garlic Festival. She is hilarious and super skilled.”
She said other celebrity chefs included: Julie Carriere, culinary instructor at San Benito High School; long-time Hollister’s favorite foodie and cooking club instructor Dorothy McNett; Jason Giles; executive chef at the Portola Hotel & Spa; and Carlo Overhulser, chef at Brŭ Appétit.
“We’re hoping that we might plant seeds to eventually have a culinary academy here to welcome junior chefs,” Szeto said.
She said locals might be surprised to learn how many olive groves are in the area and that many of the growers have won numerous international awards for excellence.
“It’s all about quality,” she said. “This year, Oils of Paicines has won several awards.  Brigantino consistently wins awards. We have Bella Vista, which started this year and they’ve already sold out, so they weren’t able to join us. Sons of Sicily just moved away, but having my shop I’ve learned that three new olive groves just started pressing. Pietra Santa Winery has an organic press, so they press organic olive oil from many different growers in the area.”
She said the festival answers people’s concerns about the health benefits and the many varieties of olive oil.
“Who can tell you better than the growers?” she said. “Who can tell you the regulations they have to meet in order to be organic or extra virgin? Being generous and friendly people, it’s easy for them to talk about it because it’s their passion. One of the owners of Oils of Paicines, Barbara Rever, is a liver specialist and her husband is a cardiologist. They can tell you about the health benefits.”
With little to no budget, marketing the festival has been a study in tactics.
“Community media first embraced it and then we did the grass roots campaign by word-of-mouth,” she said.

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