Elegance. When I hear that word now, I think of one person: Elvio Olave. First, because this native Chilean’s name eases from the mouth like Latin American poetry. Next, because of his fantasylike home: buttery stucco walls with a red-tiled roof, rows of grapevines, and colorful flowers, all set in Chile’s lush Maipo Valley. And, finally, because Olave has turned his chosen profession of farming into art—growing gourmet olives that are then crushed to liquid gold.

His company, Olave, a newcomer to U.S. grocery shelves, is the only Chilean producer of organic extra-virgin olive oil certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Unlike the soil tiller you might envision, the 52-year-old, sun-bronzed Olave is a suave entrepreneur who seems less concerned with capturing the global olive oil market than with the artistry of cultivating the perfect-tasting fruit.

No wonder, then, that I was drawn to his orchard last March for a taste of Chilean culture and to learn about organic olive oil production. As Olave guided me, along with a group of American journalists and chefs, from bushy tree to tree to investigate immature green fruits, it became clear that this former winemaker is more comfortable in the role of master artisan than that of bean-counting businessman. “I make the oil,” Olave explained. “Hmmm,” I thought upon hearing his simple explanation. “I want to know more.”

An olive love affair

Before I go on, I should confess: Like many Americans, I am an olive junkie. (According to the North American Olive Oil Association, 40 million American households use olive oil, and olive oil supermarket sales have grown 31 percent in the past six years.) Kalamatas join shiitake mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and goat cheese on my homemade pizza. Extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar are drizzled on my mixed greens. I brush olive oil on soon-to-be grilled vegetables and mix it into cornbread batter. It’s also not uncommon to find it on my vanity shelf; this heart-healthy ingredient makes a great, albeit messy, skin moisturizer.

Olive oil’s heart-healthy benefits
Popeye the Sailor Man had a health-minded hunch when it came to spinach. (This leafy green may not make muscles bulge, but it is a strong protector of the cardiovascular system, eyes, and bones, and has potent anticancer agents.) Popeye also knew what was good for his heart—Olive Oyl. Americans’ own love affair with olive oil is growing partly because of recent research showing that its monounsaturated fatty acids benefit the heart. In fact, the scientific findings have become so solid that in November 2004 the FDA approved a qualified health claim for olive oil labels and advertising, allowing manufacturers to state on their labels that a daily dose (about 2 tablespoons) of olive oil may reduce heart disease risk.

But I am no match for Olave’s guest list, which on this trip includes two executive chefs, one from the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, and another from the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach; a food writer for the New York Daily News; and a few representatives from the Chefs’ Warehouse, a specialty food distributor. These folks are professional foodies whose noses can easily sniff out rancid versus fresh olive oil. (I’m still a student of oil-tasting.) These folks think mushroom when they hear “truffle.” (I picture chocolate.) They start meals with champagne, as if every dinner were a celebratory feast. (Not a bad idea, I find.) From our first shared dining experience, I gather that they ventured south not just to study olive oil but, simply, to indulge.

We start at the trendy Blackburn Café on the Rodeo Drive–like avenue called Alónso de Córdova in Santiago, Chile. The café is in two former homes now united. The rustic backyard herb and fruit garden sets off the modern décor inside the cozy restaurant, which adjoins an upscale kitchenware shop that has the guest chefs drooling.

We greet Elvio Olave; Gabriel Gundermann, Olave’s commercial director; and José Miguel Cuevas, U.S. marketing manager, with handshakes and cheeks-touching air kisses. Cuevas, a native of Santiago who now lives in the United States, becomes our skilled translator of Chilean etiquette and Spanish language. (Another confession: My Spanish is limited, to put it generously, and when I first saw the name Olave, I thought it must be Spanish for “olive.” It isn’t; just a coincidence.)

We whet our appetites with what becomes my trip addiction: pisco sours, a traditional margaritalike drink of pisco (a strong liquor made from grapes), indigenous pica lemon, sugar, egg whites, ice, and bitters. On empty stomachs, the alcohol goes to our heads, making us fast friends. Soon we’re spreading tales of our families at home. Jennifer Snierson from the Chefs’ Warehouse asks Olave how he met his wife. A quick translation by Cuevas, and Olave goes crimson, uncharacteristically giggling like a child and hiding his eyes. “That’s a long story,” he says, shaking his head. “Oh, c’mon,” the table encourages. After gentle prodding, he tells in bursts of English how he rediscovered his long-lost teenage sweetheart after many years and a couple of false-start relationships. Ah, we raise glasses and toast romantic endings. I think we’re all hooked, not just on the quixotic story, but the Olave oil we’ve drizzled on fresh Chilean amasado bread—a salty loaf baked in clay ovens. Mmm … spicy, I think after my first taste—no doubt this oil has a bit of bite. I learn later that the flavor is distinctive in its earthy, fruity, and grassy aroma and hot finish. Such flavor is often best served simply on bread. But it’s also excellent, we found, garnishing fresh fish fillets, salads, vegetables, rice, pasta, or really, in any recipe where you’d typically use extra-virgin olive oil.

Business is booming

The next day, we take a van to the Olave organic olive farm, or El Oliveto. Along the way, we pass roadside bread stands—waving white flags indicate fresh-from-clay-oven pan amasado is ready for those who pull over. Breads like amasado; marraqueta, a light and white variety; and hallulla, a heavy and lard-packed type, are important staples for poorer Chileans, who often subsist on soup and bread.

The hot and breezy Olave plantation sits about midway between the Chilean Andes and the Pacific Ocean in the Maipo Valley of Chile, a long, narrow country on South America’s west coast. The sun-drenched Maipo region is a diverse agricultural area where grapes, peaches, melons, plums, kiwis, and strawberries grow side by side. Olave remains the only organic olive farm in the Maipo Valley, but other regions in Chile have several olive orchards.

Of course, you don’t automatically think Chile when you consider olives but, rather, the Mediterranean. Indeed, olives were first cultivated in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and today’s olive farming is mostly centered in Spain, Italy, and Greece. However, mimicking the destiny of Chilean wine, Chilean olive oil seems poised to threaten European olive oil’s stronghold on the U.S. market. (Chilean wine went from a virtual unknown in the days of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship to the third-largest source of U.S. wine imports by 1998.) Likewise, from nearly nothing, Chilean olive oil exports to the United States grew by 3,700 percent to about $100,000 in the first half of 2004, according to Chile’s National Association of Olive and Olive Oil Producers. Today, Chile boasts about 20 olive oil companies, compared with just two five years ago. At about $20 for a liter bottle, though, Olave’s gourmet organic oil may not offer the significant price-point advantage that propelled Chilean wine to popularity in the United States. Only time will tell.

In the interim, Olave, who founded his company in 1999, surely sees himself as part of the booming olive oil—and wine, for that matter—production trend. After our farm tour, we travel not far to Olave’s home for an asado—a roast in which the hot chips from burning grapevines slow-cook the meat. There, we learn that before starting Olave, our host was a successful Chilean wine entrepreneur with degrees in fruit and vegetable farming. A quick study of olive production reveals why a grape-grower might become an olive-grower. Both grapes and olives can thrive in similar climates. Wine and olive oil production utilize similar equipment, such as steel storage vats and filters. And like wine, olive oil from the same farm will taste different from year to year. One important difference, however: Unlike wine, which can peak over time, olive oil tastes best at its freshest.

In Olave’s backyard, we snack first on traditional empanadas—Chilean calzonelike pastries with a flaky shell stuffed with beef, onions, and eggs—and, of course, the finest pisco sours of the visit. We then move to the covered outdoor dining room to feast on the roasted meats accompanied by potatoes, salads, salsas, beans, and bread—all prepared with Olave oil. The dishes pair nicely with local Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, and Carmenères. Some of the wine, I’m told, is from Morande, a Maipo Valley winery that uses about 70 percent of the grapes grown on Olave’s estate. Too many bottles later, we’re basking in the late-afternoon sun and luxuriating in Olave’s pool. (March marks summer’s end in Chile.) We top things off with dulce de leche, a traditional treat of caramel and cream. How do you say “heaven” in Spanish?