When Chef Sean Brock opened Husk in Charleston in 2010, his goal was to create a restaurant that glorified Southern food and featured only ingredients grown below the Mason/Dixon line. While Husk has been an unqualified success, sourcing ingredients has proved to be a challenge. The first big stumbling block was finding good domestic olive oil. After failed attempts to make vinaigrette out of lard, Brock began to look for an alternative to banning olive oil from his kitchen.
At the recent Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, MS, Chef Brock shared the results of his search. He regaled the audience with a history of olive production in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Thomas Jefferson discovered the rare oil on a trip to Italy and encouraged South Carolina and Georgia farmers to plant the 500 trees that he sent back. Storms and unfavorable climate wiped out the original groves, and the invention of Crisco in 1911 replaced the need for more exotic oils as an alternative to animal-based cooking fats.
In 2008, Jason Shaw undertook to grow olives in Georgia to produce his own oil. His family’s Georgia Olive Farms has now created the first commercial pressing of olive oil from Georgia in well over a century, and Chef Brock shared samples with the appreciative audience. Brock’s vision is for olives to become a vital cash crop for Southern farmers, especially since the planting methods and cultivation schedule dovetail nicely with those at the many blueberry farms already in existence.
To take the initiative a step further, Brock gave out olive tree saplings to everyone at the lecture and implored everyone to plant them wherever attendees returned home to in the South. Georgia Olive Farms has only produced ½ ton from their 24-acre test grove thus far, but Shaw and his team hope to ramp up production to over 1,800 tons/year from 500 acres. If the number of olive sprigs sticking out of the carry-on luggage of departing SFA members is any indication, the range of this crusade will expand rapidly. And the salad dressing at Husk is about to get a lot better.