Olive and Wine Country: Corning, CA

A giant replica of a martini olive sits on the corner of South Avenue and Hall Road in Corning, California. It isn’t someone’s idea of a practical joke but a symbol of the fruit’s importance to this part of the Sacramento Valley in California that produces olives and olive oil.

A visit to Lucero Olive Oil opened our eyes to an industry that is growing fast enough to be an important crop for the state. Lucero also happens to produce some of the best extra-virgin olive oils in the world, having won many competitions. The process for extracting the oil from the olive fruit is highly mechanized at Lucero, but as in winemaking, the role of the master maker is also very important. Despite the simplicity of how it sounds, the “cold-pressing” process for extra-virgin olive oil involves crushing the olives and pits into a mash and after kickstarting enzymes with a bit of heat in malaxers not to exceed 80oF, centrifuging the oil out in decanters. A few hardy olive varieties lend themselves to mechanized harvesting, but the fruit-picking is done manually for the most part to minimize bruising that could lead to oxidation. The tasting room lets you sample their oils, balsamic vinegars and tapénades and a factory tour can be arranged at the spur of the moment. Their oils had a range of tastes from mild to slightly bitter, with degrees of buttery, fruity and herbal notes. It was explained to us that the peppery finish in oils depends on variety, but more so on how mature the fruit is when picked, the greener ones exhibiting this characteristic.

The area between Corning and Red Bluff are full of olive tree orchards, which can easily be seen along the many roads throughout the valley.

Olive orchard along Road

Olive orchard along Hall Road

In nearby Vina, a community of Cistercian monks live in a monastery, the Abbey of New Clairvaux. The brothers also have a winery that produces award-winning wines, a tradition that dates back to Europe. There is a tasting room where we sampled a pinot grigio, viognier, albariño, barbera, petit sirah and a port-like vino dolce, a bottle of which we purchased.

new clairvaux

As you approach the winery, you can’t help but notice a Gothic-looking building on the grounds. The history behind its construction (or reconstruction) is very interesting, involving a thirteenth-century Cistercian abbey, William Randolph Hearst, and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. In an attempt to build an estate that would surpass San Simeon, Hearst purchased a ruined chapter house of Santa Maria de Ovila, an old Cistercian monastery in Spain, as part of the project. The building was dismantled, piece by piece, and brought to the Bay Area. The advent of the Depression disrupted this plan and the stones eventually donated to the De Young Museum of San Francisco. The stones were left unattended in Golden Gate Park for many years where they were vandalized and generally lay in ruin. In 1994, the stones were granted to the Abbey of New Clairvaux, which has incorporated the stones to build a new chapter house, a replica of the original Spanish structure.

Cistercian architecture is known for its simplicity. The symbolism of its vaulted ceilings and windows are considered divine. Some aspects of the design use the golden ratio, often embodied in esoteric works of art.

The golden ratio is incorporated into the proportion of

The golden ratio is incorporated into the layout and dimensions of the portals

The pointed ceilings symbolize the vault of heaven

The pointed ceilings are supposed to symbolize the vault of heaven

In Corning, the Olive Pit sells all manner of olive products, more than I had ever seen anywhere.

For dinner, we took advantage of half-price senior buffets at the local Rolling Hills Casino, operated by the Nomlaki tribe.

Lunch at Nancy’s Airport Cafe (Willows, CA)

One of the best surprises of eating on the road is coming across little gems. It wasn’t that Nancy’s Airport Cafe happened to be the closest place at mealtime. It was mentioned in an article in the latest issue of a bimonthly AAA magazine published in Northern California, called Via, in which a food critic wrote about the best eats along US Interstate 5 between Sacramento and Portland. (As an aside, my wife happened to pick up a copy at the Stockton AAA when I picked up a tour book, a happy coincidence since we were on this very itinerary.)

Nancy’s is a classic diner, located in a small town (Willows) and situated at the edge of a little-used municipal airport. The wind was blowing stiffly outside, the skies gray as if rain were on the horizon. Once we stepped inside, the waitress greeted us warmly. It is a local favorite, evidenced by the many town folk who were eating here. The restaurant has been open for 40 years and our waitress has worked 22 of them.

Since it was lunchtime, we ordered one of the specials of the day and a customer favorite, Crispy Cheese Ham Sandwich (☆☆☆), which we shared, and a boysenberry pie a la mode, which we also shared. What was so special about the sandwich? Shredded cheddar cheese is sprinkled on a hot griddle, then fried until crispy, topped with thin smoked ham slices, and the works scooped on top of thick sandwich bread. The sandwich can be topped with lettuce, slices of tomato and onion, and pickles, and then folded over. A very tasty treat.

Crispy Cheese Ham Sandwich

Crispy Cheese Ham Sandwich

The pie slice (☆☆½) arrived with THREE scoops of vanilla ice cream. Other than a doughy crust, the pie was a very good one.

Boysenberry pie a la mode

Boysenberry pie a la mode

Pies, in fact, are a specialty here. Aside from ours and the lemon meringue pie recommended by the Via article, there were banana cream, coconut cream, strawberry cream, blackberry, blueberry, apple and peach. Our waitress recommended any of the burgers (made with Angus ground beef). Other customer favorites are the smoked beef tri-tip, fried chicken and broasted chicken.

Nancy's cream pies

Nancy’s cream pies

Nancy’s gets kudos for friendly service (which our waitress called ‘entertainment’), homey atmosphere, and solidly prepared comfort foods. This is what road food is all about.

Gone to Seed

South of Williams in California, there are vast fields of sunflowers almost abutting Interstate 5. In bloom right now, they are hard to miss with their bright yellow petals. But, rather than growing them for florists, they are grown for a different commercial purpose: their seeds. Such a pity because these sunflowers would brighten up many vases.