Posted By bbinns on January 14, 20091.13.09 Creston, CA. In Hawaiian, “Pau Hana” means “no more work”, or “work is finished.” When Nick and Robin Gladdis decided to sell up in Maui after 13 happy years, move to the Central Coast of California and make olive oil from trees they planned to plant themselves, that was the general plan.
It hasn’t turned out quite that way. Eight years after planting the first few trees and building the first structure on their ten-acre property (a garage/workshop/bottling room), both Nick and Robin still have their day-jobs in the medical industry. During their free time, they install irrigation lines, pour paving slabs, prune the long lines of silvery trees that march across these golden hills, tend a prodigious patch of tomatoes, and recently, for fun, finished building a free-standing pizza oven on the back porch of the Spanish-style home whose design plan came straight from the pages of Sunset magazine. It’s hard to imagine this dynamic pair ever not working, to be honest.
When I landed in San Luis Obispo ten days ago, my first step in locating interesting farms and food sources was a simple post on the Central-Coast forum of eGullet: “Looking for non-fine-dining and food sources.” Of the four or five responses I received, the most intriguing came from a “Raoul Duke,” who casually inquired whether I’d like to spend a little time tasting extra-virgin olive oil on a producing olive farm. Yes, please! Eventually it transpired that, as I’d suspected, my co-respondent’s name was not, actually, Raoul Duke but Nick Gladdis. Nick turned out to be an energetic fifty-something lover of food, wine, and lifestyle who, with his wife Robin, had created something truly impressive and enviable out of a slice of dry hillsides near Creston, a half-a-horse town about 20 minutes east of Atascadero and just a little farther from the acknowledged center of Central-Coast winemaking excitement, the rapidly growing town of Paso Robles.
Here is a couple that went “back to the land” without either a dusty pony-tail or a healthy trust-fund, two people who believe that producing something with your hands is a source of pride and worthy of virtually every penny of disposable income and every ounce of their strength and time. I think that, for those who are somehow able, this may be the way of the future in our beleaguered economy. But making such a change takes guts, energy, appetite for risk, and a like-thinking partner. It is, in fact, almost the antithesis of the concept of Pau Hana.
“Everyone here is making wine,” replied Nick, when I asked “Why olive trees?” “I figured that with all this wine, eventually there would be a glut and prices would fall. I wanted to grow something else appropriate for the Mediterranean climate.”
The Gladdis farm started off with Lucca olives, which produce a peppery green oil similar in style to Frantoia, and then added a contingent Arbequina, a Spanish fruit that yields a more buttery oil. The small estate currently produces both oils, and Nick set up a truly professional olive-oil tasting for us—in all my visits to Italian olive-oil producers, I’d never had such a serious presentation of olive oils. (Perhaps because in Europe, olive oil production is often a sideline to wine production, and is seen as the less important product of an estate.)
Each oil—Lucca and Arbequina—is poured into a small blue glass cup—blue, so you will not be tempted to hold the glass up to the light and compare the colors, like I immediately was. Instead, you must make a judgment based purely on flavor, and in this first phase of tasting there is no bread in sight. First you place a palm over the rim of the small glass and swirl, to release the volatile aroma of the oil, then inhale deeply, as you would sniff a glass of wine. Then a small sip, and here you must not swallow but rather purse your lips and suck in some air, allowing the oil to gurgle excitedly on your palate. (This has the effect of blasting the peppery character of the oil to the back of your throat and invariably provokes a little cough or two.) Then, Nick heats up some rustic country bread and pours us each a glass of a flowery local Viognier. This is wine and food country and I feel at home.
Indeed, I sense the buttery presence of lactic acid in the Arbequina oil, and the peppery, Tuscan-esque character of the Lucca. I imagine dressing a clean and simple arugola salad with the Arbequina oil and a little Meier lemon juice from Robert’s courtyard, and drizzling a huge platter of raucous linguine Puttanesca with the Lucca oil.
Which, after bidding exceedingly warm farewells to Nick and Robin(I suspect we four will meet again, and talk fondly of future projects), is exactly what I did. Cousin Robert had requested Puttanesca for Sunday’s sun-soaked mid-afternoon feast, and although it has been, conservatively, eight years since I have cooked pasta as a main course, I had located a recipe (Jamie Oliver’s seemed closest to authentic, oddly), and secured the requisite non-perishables in downtown SLO.
After a huge hunk of Taleggio was washed down by Ferrari-Carrano Sauvignon Blanc on the sunset-side terrace, the temperature finally began to drop from its idyllic 78F. We repaired to the long, candle-lit table inside for skinny, artisanal noodles robed with spicy-hot, fishy-salty sauce and drizzled with a Lucca oil whose provenance we knew intimately. The arugola had been picked that morning by Geo, whose Atascadero garden could rival any farmers market, and desert was a pie lovingly made from Robert’s apples and Geo’s pastry.
In “Austerity ‘09”’s absence of a budget for travel to Italy, our Sunday excursion and supper ranks up there with the best of both worlds and stands as ample justification of my no-winter-in-New York reasoning. At home, I see, the temperature is 2 degrees below zero. And on Monday morning, I was back at my “desk,” taking calls, working on a book proposal, and busily attempting to earn a living.