A Taste of Japanese Olive Oil
Shodo Island, (Shodoshima for the Japanese), is located in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan. Even when its name means literally “Island of small beans” it is also known as “Olive Island”. Yes, there are olive trees in Japan. So far most of them are on this little island, and now some have recently been planted on the main island as well.
After being part of the jury for Japan Olive Oil Prize 2016, the prestigious olive oil competition held in Tokyo, I flew to the city of Takamatsu. From there I took a ferry boat-which properly displayed a giant painted olive-towards the port of Ikeda, in Shodoshima.
The archipelago is quite beautiful, and the Inland Sea is often referred to as the Mediterranean of Japan, due to its similarities with the European sea. In fact, while I was in Tokyo, I met a Sicilian olive oil producer who told me that he just visited there and the place reminded him so much of his own land.
The aim of my trip was to visit with Toyohiro Takao, an olive oil producer I briefly met when he visited Berkeley in the beginning of this year. Mr. Takao has impressively achieved a great deal, winning important international awards with his olive oil. Last year, “Takao Nouen no Olive Hatake”, his olive oil brand, won important awards at New York International and at Los Angeles International. I remember after the tasting of that year at LA, Darrell Corti, the chairman of the competition, suggested that we taste a couple of Japanese olive oils that were very good, which were then a novelty to us. I remember tasting Mr. Takao’s olive oil and being positively surprised by how well crafted it was.The trip was a little adventure because in this remote corner of Japan, English is not widely spoken. I knew, however, that this language barrier was going to be more fun than a problem. Japanese people excel in politeness and good manners and as soon as I got off the ferry I experienced the greatest hospitality.
In 1904, California donated Mission and Manzanillo olive trees to the island, something that adds to this already fascinating story. In fact, one of Takao’s olive oil is from Mission olives, our emblematic cultivar which developed in the Franciscan Missions along El Camino Real in California, and in Arizona as well. In his groves he also has planted Lucca, Frantoio, and Ascolano olive trees, among other varieties.
The olives are milled and filtered with tiny Italian machinery. The volume is quite small, which allows for maximum care and attention, something that is highly valued in Japanese culture.
When I got to his milling operation I was eager to taste the olive oils from the recent season. He had none. Totally sold out. Olive oil is so precious and expensive there that he can’t even keep some for himself. This reminded me once again how blessed we are in California where we so easily have access to olive oil at very reasonable prices. His olive oil sells in bottles of 70 mL, and most of the other olive oils in the island are sold in small bottles as well (50mL, 70mlL, 100mL and 200mL). The average price is $20 for a 100mL bottle, and up to $60 for the 200mL. People buy the oil as a fine gift. There are also plenty of other olive related products sold in the island such as olive leaf tea, olive drops, soaps, jams, etc.
Mr. Takao struggles with several issues to farm his trees since the climate does not always cooperate, especially with the heavy rains and humidity. He uses fertilizers painstakingly prepared by himself. He seems to be an excellent farmer who also grows asparagus in very neat green houses. The island hosts a large population of monkeys and growers need to take care of protecting their crops from them. Fortunately, olives are too bitter for them.
During my visit a group of young students from the University of Kyoto was doing an internship with Mr.Takao, helping with the asparagus. They were extremely considerate and attentive in our conversations and held olive oil in great esteem, recognizing it as a very special product.
In my previous visit to Tokyo, Davide Fantoni from the Italian Chamber of Commerce, recommended to me reading the writings of Kenko, the wandering Japanese monk of the 14th century. I did so just before this visit. Among the many interesting and enjoyable short essays, there were many going back to the subject of doing things mindfully, striving for mastering skills in depth. “Expert knowledge in any art is a noble thing” says Kenko.1
This idea is something that has permeated Japanese culture and society. It seems that when they set to do something they cherish, they’re very serious about it. In my native Argentina we always knew of the passion of the Japanese for tango, and how knowledgeable and what good dancers they can be. I have heard that some of the best scotch is now being produced in Japan, and if that is so, I would not be surprised. Going back in history, many disciplines that arrived already in highly developed to Japan from China were often enhanced, as happened with landscaping and flower arrangement. Takao San is continuing and honoring that great tradition by making excellent olive oil and I was happy and enriched by witnessing that.
1 The book is called “The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko” and it has been presented in the west as “Essays in Idleness.” I read the translation by scholar Donald Keene.