Making Japan’s award-winning Olive no Mori variety of olive oil

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Using such an oil on a beautiful salad is not hard to grasp for any of us who care about what we are eating. However, using a pricey oil on everything — including sauteed foods — is more of a stretch for most. The expense adds up. Nonetheless, I found that the tastes of our simple field vegetables were greatly elevated once sauteed in the better oil (with Japanese sea salt).

Olive oil is not the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Japanese ingredients. Yet Shodoshima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea is home to thousands of olive trees. “Olive island,” as it is known, has been producing Japanese olive oil since 1908.

While I did buy some of Shodoshima’s olive oil at a food event 15 years ago, Japanese olive oil slipped off of my radar in the intervening years. But recently I have found myself traveling to Shodoshima to explore its strikingly delicious native olive oils such as Olive no Mori produced by Shodoshima Healthy Land and Takao Olive Farm’s Takao Nouen no Olive Hatake. Admittedly expensive, these oils have been garnering gold medals in prestigious competitions such as the Los Angeles County Fair (Olive no Mori) and the New York International Olive Oil Competition (Takao Nouen no Olive Hatake).

What sets these oils apart is the small scale of their production, their location on Shodoshima, the care that goes into the trees themselves and, of course, the blending of the olives after pressing.

Touching the bark of Olive no Mori’s 1,000-year-old olive tree that overlooks the Seto Inland Sea, I felt the power of the ages. Although the president of Healthy Land transplanted the tree here in 2011 from Spain, the tree symbolizes the deep historical roots that lie behind the ancient food culture of olive oil. We stand under its spreading branches while Atsuhiko Utsumi, an olive tree expert, gently shakes the branches to dislodge residual flowers that did not become tiny olive buds. This operation relieves the tree from the job of trying to extricate them itself, akin to deadheading rose bushes. The tree can thus focus its energy on growing flavorful olives rather than sloughing off unneeded dead flowers.

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