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Pressing Matters
Pressing Matters
Victor Gutierrez and Susan Chamberlin
find pleasure in (while squeezing profits from) olives at Finca Luna Serena

Patrick Timothy Mullikin
Susan Chamberlin at Finca Luna Serena’s newly opened retail store, Hernandez Macias 99.

Story and Photos
By Patrick Timothy Mullikin

Two years ago Victor Gutierrez and his wife, Susan Chamberlin, struck what the Greek poet Homer referred to as “Liquid Gold” on their 100-acre farm, Finca Luna Serena (Serene Moon Farm), just outside San Miguel.

Today their farm-made, boutique olive oils are making a splash in and around San Miguel, through word – and taste – of mouth.

Gutierrez, a stocky, simpatico 70-year-old New York City ex-advertising executive, talks about his farm and the world of olives as he walks his property with a small tour group and three or four farm dogs in tow.

Visitors to Rancho Zandunga, the venue created by Gil Gutierrez (no relation) and his wife, Rebecca, located outside San Miguel de Allende, may recall seeing Finca Luna Serena olive oils for sale there, but as of January, the couple found a permanent storefront to sell their wares: the newly opened The Opal Mine, a jewelry store located at Hernandez Macias 99.

Why olive oil in a jewelry store?

Gutierrez explains: “The owner of The Opal Mine came out to the ranch and tasted our oils and fell in love with them. He wanted me to put them in there. I thought about it during the holidays and thought, ‘I don’t want to sell olive oil in a jewelry store,’” he recalls with a laugh. “But in January Susan and I decided, ‘let’s go ahead and do it.’ It’s the best move we ever made.”

Patrick Timothy Mullikin
Victor Gutierrez with one of his 1,300 olive trees
Patrick Timothy Mullikin
Gutierrez kneels among his garlic crop. All fruits and herbs used in the company’s flavored oils are grown organically and onsite.

One member of today’s tour group, Rebecca Woodland, www.rebeccawoodland.net, a cookbook author from Honolulu, Hawaii, a self-described olive-oil freak who carries a bottle in her luggage, thinks the jewelry store is an ideal outlet. “People who appreciate fine jewelry also appreciate fine ingredients.”

As he crunches his way through crispy dry, though manicured, grass, Gutierrez says he and Susan bought their ranch 16 years ago and began curing olives as a hobby 10 years ago. When he retired from the advertising business he found himself with plenty time on his hands. “All of a sudden I wasn’t doing anything, and I was looking for something to do.”

On a trip to California’s Napa Valley he found it. He noticed many wineries also sold olive oil. So when he returned to San Miguel, he says, he checked out his property. “Olives don’t require a lot of water, but if you irrigate them you can really boost production.” He said to Susan, “We’re going to create a destination for people to come out and spend some time.” And he began researching olives and olive oil.

“I was used to working 70 hours a week. After I retired I started using those hours reading books. Anytime anybody said anything about olive oils I’d go online and check it out. I feel I know more about olive oil than people who’ve gone to school for it.”

Gutierrez and Chamberlin, who both had experience in running a tropical nursery, became founding members of Olivocultores de Guanajuato, an olive growers association, and began planting the first of the farm’s 1,300 trees.

As luck would have it, Gutierrez discovered 800 8-year-old unplanted olive trees abandoned at a winery. “They were in really bad shape, but the root balls were strong.” Those trees are now producing olives.

Patrick Timothy Mullikin
Vats of olive oil await decanting and bottling.

Most of his trees, he explains, are made from cuttings. “After pruning you can use cuttings to propagate more trees. There are about 200 varieties grown commercially; here we have about five or six.”

Olive trees, he says, live a long time. Trees on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are said to be more than 2,000 years old, and they are nearly indestructible. After a fire, they sprout new growth, unfazed.

“So, Sue and I learned how to make olive oil.” Today they are assisted by Transito and Maria Valle and family who have learned the entire process – from growing and taking care of the 1,300 trees to picking and selecting olives, making olive oil and curing olives as well as selling all the products.

Gutierrez is quiet about the actual process of turning olives into olive oil, and understandably so. He’s also created his own processing equipment, which he keeps under lock and key.

In the end, however, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case in how the olive oil tastes.

Before the tour group sits down for lunch, Gutierrez offers a formal tasting of some of his prized stock.

The ritual of olive-oil tasting is much like wine tasting, and Gutierrez says it usually done with blue cups so the taster is not influenced by the color of the oil. He joins the group in the tasting, for quality control, he says.

His instructions are complex: “Put it in your mouth, roll it around with your tongue, onto your palate, swallow it, get some air in your mouth, and experience the different flavors that you’re going to get – from the real olive oil.”

Patrick Timothy Mullikin
Rebecca Woodland, a cookbook author from Honolulu, Hawaii, and a self-described olive-oil freak who carries a bottle in her luggage, prepares to taste a flavored oil.

Olive-oil freak Woodland comments on behalf of the group.

Manzanilla:

Gutierrez prepares the group for what’s to come. “You’ll feel the sensation in different parts of your mouth. You’ll feel raspiness in the back of your throat.” He mentions, as an aside, that his cholesterol has dropped from 285 to 185 since he began making olive oil, and that he usually consumes two tablespoons daily.

“It’s buttery and beautiful,” says Woodland.

Koroneiki:

“Mmm. This is really lovely. You can’t find this kind of stuff commercially. Not for any price,” says Woodland.

Lechina:

“It’s almost not even like an olive oil; it’s almost like walnut oil. It’s got an after bite.”

Patrick Timothy Mullikin
Ranch foreman Transito Valle with his olive-tree cuttings. Olive trees live a long time and are nearly indestructible. Trees on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are said to be more than 2,000 years old.

Arbequina:

Gutierrez says this one should be familiar because it is reminiscent of store-bought olive oil. It is also used as a base for his flavored oils.

“It’s nice, but it’s boring compared to the others,” says Woodland diplomatically.

Then it’s on to the flavored oils, which Gutierrez infuses with fruits and herbs grown organically and onsite. To maintain freshness and maximum shelf life, he makes his flavored oils in small batches, 20 bottles at a time, flavored one at a time.

Lemon:

“If you go to the store and you buy flavored oil, and the flavor hits you right away, then chances are that it has been chemically induced,” Gutierrez warns.

Woodland swallows her tiny cup, pauses, puckers: “Definitely, definitely lemon. Oh, my goodness. This has the bite at the end. Whew!”

Basil:

“Imagine making pesto with this basil olive oil,” says Woodland.

Rosemary:

Gutierrez offers a tip: Grill a pork chop with nothing on it, then pour rosemary olive oil on it.

“Oh, wow,” says Woodland.

Apple-wood smoked, with chile:

“This one you will not find anywhere but in our place. It’s a hot seller with Mexicans. The owner of Sirena Gorda restaurant comes in and buys three bottles at a time. He says, ‘This is mine.’ He puts it on all his fish. It has smoke and chile arbol. You’re gonna get a little explosion of chile that comes and then goes away,” says Gutierrez.

“I could wear this as perfume. But I’d be afraid of what would follow me. This is fabulous,” says Woodland.

Following a simple, healthy lunch that includes crisp greens fresh from his garden and tomatoes from his greenhouse, the tour of Finca Luna Serena comes to an end. Gutierrez and Chambers say they welcome and encourage small tour groups to visit the farm, which includes breakfast or lunch, at 250 pesos per guest.

Of their recent success in the olive oil business, Gutierrez says: “I guess God takes care of idiots. Who would have the guts to sell olive oil in a jewelry store?”

For more information about Finca Luna Serena, its product, or to inquire about visiting the farm, visit their website www.fincalunaserena.com.

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Patrick Timothy Mullikin is editor of Lokkal Magazine/Revista San Miguel de Allende and is the winner of the first San Miguel de Allende Scowling Contest.

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