Tuesday, December 18, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 41

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Lady of Los Olivos: Theodora Stephan's Global Gardens produces organic boutique olive oil from the Central Coast

Joe Payne

It was already dark just before 6 p.m. as we cruised down the rural Los Olivos road, but thankfully it was glowing at Global Gardens.

Global Gardens sells nine varieties of olive oil, including two imports and the rest grown in orchards in Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, Los Alamos, and Paso Robles.

The long, pale branches of the olive trees there were festooned with bright holiday lights, wreathing the picnic area of Theodora "Theo" Stephan's farm stand property with a welcoming shine. It was one of her regular appreciation nights for her olive oil club members, of whom I have been happily counted for a solid 10 years.

The visiting members lined up for drinks, or to pick up or purchase oil or vinegar at the cash register, and crowded around the large table filled with Stephan's mediterranean-inspired spread. Crackers, cheese, spiced nuts, salads, bread, olives, and glistening baklava were all there for the taking.

The protein that stole the show that night was the chicken salad, which included Global Garden's Greek spice blend on the grilled chicken along with artichoke hearts, olive oil, and cherry tomatoes from her garden, Stephan said.

"I used the Kalamata [oil], the Greek Kalamata, because it's the best value and it's also the fruitiest," she explained. "The tomatoes are so tart and the char on the chicken and just the viscosity of it is just the best.

Global Gardens club members were invited to enjoy a fantastic mediterranean-inspired medley of dishes prepared with their olive oils, vinegars, and spice blends.

"And the Greek spice blend," she added, "I mean, I'm Greek, so I have to go Greek."

Stephan first moved to the Central Coast in the mid-1990s, bringing along with her hundreds of olive trees from her parents' home country of Greece. She first learned how to press olive oil in Greece, Stephan explained, with a friendly olive oil family from Crete.

She first planted where the farm stand is, in Los Olivos, but Stephan also has trees growing at orchards in Santa Ynez, Los Alamos, and Paso Robles. This year marks her 20th in business since her first harvest in 1998, also when she started Global Gardens.

Still close to her roots in Greece, Stephan sources from the same family for her two only import oils, she said, and more, pointing to the oil-cured olives that sparkled from the white bowl on the table.

"They're from the same property that the Kalamata olives are from," she said. "It's a single property cultivar for the olives and the olive oil. ... It's on the north side of Crete, it's called the Kolumvari region."

Longtime Global Gardens members such as myself are well acquainted with the scope and variety Stephan has in her oils (we haven't even approached the vinegars yet, but we'll get there). 

The olive oil tastings you can get regularly at Global Gardens are as informative as they are tasty. They're perfect for in between wine tasting rooms or a Santa Ynez Valley day trip, and free for members.

Theodora Stephan substituted her Lisbon lemon-infused olive oil into a focaccia recipe, and the results were flavorful. “I’d like to fold some of my spice blends into it next time,” she said.

If you're lucky, you'll get Stephan to lead your tasting, explaining all the different characteristics of her oils, what she likes to use them for, and how she combines them with her other products. You get to know the different varietals over time, like the difference between the Koroneiki and the Ascolano, where the trees are from, and different flavor profiles. Also, the infused oils are to die for. The basil-infused oil has such a bright bouquet, whereas the blood-orange-infused olive oil sweetens the oil with its rosy flavor, and don't get me started on the Lisbon lemon!

No, it's too late. Here's an illustration of how perfect Stephan's oils are: One of the quickest dishes to disappear from her table that night was a focaccia bread that she said she made from a simple internet recipe with one substitution: her Lisbon lemon-infused oil for the regular extra virgin that the recipe calls for. The result was a crispy, buttery foccacia with a sweet lemony flavor.

But she also knows when an oil shouldn't take the spotlight, like with the simple mixed green salad with persimmons, raspberries, havarti, and a dressing including the Koroneiki oil, which doesn't overtake the ingredients, but insteads unifies and enhances them.

Global Gardens owner Theodora “Theo” Stephan greets visitors at a special event for club members on Nov. 30 at her Los Olivos farm stand and property.

That could very well be the guiding philosophy behind her method for mixing spices as well. They don't lean too heavily on any one ingredient, and instead create a balanced synergy. A perfect example were the spiced nuts she had available, including Greek spice blend-dusted almonds, which are a delicious snack unto themselves.

"The Greek spice blend, it's everything Greek," Stephan explained. "It's dill and nutmeg and white pepper and garlic and a little bit of Mediterranean sea salt and Greek oregano."

It's when you combine her spices and her oils that you start to get a clearer picture of Stephan's culinary vision. Her cookbooks, of which there are several, detail a style of food and lifestyle she calls Caliterranean, which combines Mediterranean cuisine with California-grown food and a mindset that prizes healthy and organic living.

But it's not all salads at Theo's place, either. Another star dish that night was the baklava, which included a combination of her blood-orange-infused olive oil (a lot of it) with a healthy dash of Global Gardens Dream Dust, which is a lot of things, Stephan explained.

"It's a little sexy," she said. "It's 100 percent rainforest cacao, so it's bitter, and then we add madagascar vanilla, a little bit of nutmeg, clove, cardamom, and I think it's the vanilla that really brings the balance to that."

The sweetness of the blood orange oil got close to the syrup range on the baklava, which included one thick middle layer of filo dough, a bit of a family tradition, Stephan said.

Taste the olive
Check out Global Gardens at 2450 Alamo Pintado Road, Los Olivos. They do olive oil tastings from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays. More info: (805) 686-4111 or globalgardensonline.com.

"I like the chewy aspect of it instead of just the nuts and the filo," she said. "I've modified it quite a bit over the years. My mother was a butter person, but she was the best baker. ... She actually made her own filo."

That kind of respectful reverence for hand making filo dough informs the quality of Global Gardens oils. Members see (and taste) that Stephan puts in the work to produce her boutique line of organic oils and vinegars (I guess we didn't have time for those after all), which are their own reward in quality, not to mention the value you get through a membership.

And the parties, of course, are fun too.

"I'm really full of gratitude for still being here," Stephan said. "I wouldn't be here without my club members. ... It's our personal annuity. I'm a single mom; it's how I sent my kids to college." 

Managing Editor Joe Payne also lost time to mention his favorite, the walnut oil. Contact him at jpayne@santamariasun.com.

Edible Arrangements celebrates its first anniversary in business on Dec. 14 from 3 to 5 p.m. Owned by franchisees George and Linda Muranaka, the dessert shop makes fruit and candy arrangements (pictured below) for gifts and other occasions. During the anniversary celebration, an arrangement will be given away every half hour, and there will be samples, free smoothies, and sales on products like chocolate-dipped strawberries at 530 E. Betteravia Road, suite B1, Santa Maria


• I just visited another gem in Guadalupe, the El Tapatio restaurant, for their Sunday menudo. Fantastic! Also, their combo plates are a great way to try a variety of meats, all of which they cook perfectly. And if you've never been to El Tapatio, the family-owned restaurant will immediately win you over with the bean dip they serve with the chips and salsa. Check them out at 914 Guadalupe St., Guadalupe.

• If you like to take the kiddies to Boomers for the go-karts and games, they can also enjoy Breakfast with Santa on Dec. 15, 16, or 22 from 9 to 10 a.m. at the amusement park, located at 2250 Preisker Lane, Santa Maria. More information is available at (805) 928-4942 or boomersparks.com.

Cookie Time!

• I didn't know such beautiful things existed, but there's a Holiday Charcuterie Workshop happening on Dec. 15 from noon to 2 p.m. at the Municipal Winemakers Tasting Room, 432 Bell St., Los Alamos. The workshop will teach the finer points of paring meats and cheeses, wine included. I don't know if I could get through the whole class without eating all the materials, or maybe that's the idea. Find out more by calling (805) 245-5524 or visiting my805tix.com.

• The Sun and New Times staff have found some creative ways to celebrate the holiday season this year with a 12 Days of Christmas theme, including a recent Friday cookie decorating session (pictured above). Don't you wish your office was sweet like ours? Then do it: Surprise your office with a fun, communal gift! All you need is some basic baking skills and then just get the sprinkles and icings together and let your coworkers go to town. 

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