What Was Old Is New – Georgia Olive Farms & The Reclamation of a Lost Georgia Crop

It may surprise you to know that in 1791, Thomas Jefferson brought olive trees to the Southeastern United States with hopes of creating a crop of the plant that he felt “contributes the most to the happiness of mankind.” Unfortunately, Jefferson’s crops failed, but there was some success growing olives along the coast of Georgia near Savannah and up into coastal South Carolina. An old olive grove was even discovered near the lighthouse on Georgia’s beloved St. Simon’s Island. Alas, the last groves of the coastal olives were decimated during Hurricane No. 7 in 1898. It seemed that olive production in Georgia was at a standstill.

During the drought of 2000, however, three different sets of people began efforts to reclaim olive production in Georgia. State Legislator, Mary Squires, was looking for a way to boost Georgia’s agriculture and through some research determined that the climate and soil quality in Southwest Georgia is very similar to that of the Mediterranean. Around the same time, a Georgia blueberry farmer named Shawn Davis saw a surplus of blueberries in his future and wanted to begin diversifying with new crops. Meanwhile, Jason & Sam Shaw, blueberry farming brothers in Lakeland, were looking for ways to innovate. They realized that they could use the same equipment to harvest olives that they used for harvesting their blueberries. The Georgia Olive Growers Association was formed, and by the late 2000’s, olive crops were becoming established and Georgia Olive Farms, as the Shaw’s business became known, had built a mill to cold press the olives. Georgia Olive Oil was born.

The Shaws primarily grow Arbequina olives, a varietal grown often in California and in the Catalonia region of Spain which produces superior quality oil. They also grow a Grecian variety called Koroneiki and another Spanish variety called Arbosana to create a blend with maximum flavor and yield. Each year, a small batch of pure Arbequina oil is released, but they primarily sell a chef’s blend which combines all three varietals. The oil is green, and buttery with a fruity finish and is great for drizzling on a fish or vegetable dish or just for dunking a piece of fresh warm focaccia in. In addition to harvesting olives for oil, the Shaws sell the young trees to other farmers trying to get their start, provides educational resources for them, and have aims for agritourism options in the future. The Georgia Olive Growers Association hopes to spread the word about olive production and get more farmers involved in cultivating this crop. Take a look at the beautiful video below from DT Productions to take a glimpse of the Georgia Olive Farms daily operations.

At Heirloom, we sell Georgia Olive Oil alongside warm focaccia as a small plate, and we also have bottles of the Chef’s Blend for sale for $30. 

Additional Reading:

Georgia Olive Farms in Lakeland from Tibbett’s Travel

Origins of Georgia’s Newborn Olive Industry from Olive Oil Times

Georgia Olive Farms website

Anson Mills: Preserving Heirloom Grains One Kernel at a Time

Glenn Roberts, Anson Mills, Rice Grits from Southern Living Magazine

Anson Mills was born of a driving, insatiable curiosity. Glenn Roberts was never meant to live a normal life. Finding settling into a normal career path impossible, Roberts pushed himself to deeply explore every new subject that piqued his interest. He was an Air Force pilot because of an obsession with fast planes, he dabbled in riding and dressage, he worked as a yacht navigator and mate, falling in love with indigenous cuisines along his path, he drove long haul trucks, he studied German literature in college. Finally, he followed a passion for architectural history and a study of food history to become a consultant in historic preservation and remodeling projects in South Carolina. At this point in his journey, he found himself planning period-specific dinners to celebrate the culmination of each project, striving to source the original ingredients for each dish. At one such dinner, he opened a bag of Carolina Gold Rice from the only producer at the time to find it infested with weevils. This shocking discovery paired with the frustration he found in trying to source Antebellum grains and crops to supplement the meals he planned out forged a fire in Roberts that eventually engulfed his life.

Roberts began searching for growers that would be willing to cultivate Carolina Gold Rice, alongside a few varietals of corn that had also gone by the wayside as crops began being cultivated for ease rather than flavor and nutrition, but he came up empty handed. In 1998, Roberts bought a warehouse, built a mill, threw away his business cards, and began his journey to make Carolina Gold Rice a viable Southern crop, growing, harvesting, and milling other nearly extinct varieties of heirloom corn and wheat organically. By 2000, Roberts had his first usable corn harvest and was cultivating 10 varietals of dent corn. He was well on his way to recreate the ingredients of the Antebellum Southern larder.

The “Carolina Rice Kitchen” is thought to be the first colonial American cuisine. Like most cuisines, it was cultivated to serve the rich. Bringing together the technology of Venetian canal growers, African rice management practises, and Native American labor, the Georgia and Carolina rice growing region was rich with cultures built upon the backs of others. While plantation life is not something Southerners should be proud of, the varietals of grains that were cultivated during this time were quite beautiful, nutritious, and delicious. Their production fell off as labor became more expensive and technology made it easier to dumb down and streamline production into just a few strains. Anson Mills is pushing to motivate farmers and chefs to create a new market for these grains, and pushing themselves to work hard to make a higher quality product that deserves to be preserved.

At Heirloom, we source several grain varieties from Anson Mills. They are cold milled, and chill vacuum packed as each order comes in and then ship it out the same day, allowing the product to arrive at peak freshness with maximum flavor retention. Here is a little background on the individual products that we are using:

Carolina Gold Rice:

Cultivated as the staple grain in the Carolina Rice Kitchen, this delicate, sweet, non-aromatic rice provides a superior texture and flavor and a clean flavor. Cooked correctly, it results in fluffy, individual grains, creamy risotto, or sticky Asian style rice.

Benne Seed:

Originally hailing from Africa, the enslaved people brought benne seed with them to cook their rice with. They grew it in hidden gardens, but eventually it was discovered by plantation owners and they brought it into their own kitchens. When cooked, benne imparts a nuttiness, deep burnt honey flavor, and magnifies the umami notes naturally found in the foods it is cooked with. Planted between field peas and corn, benne improves soil quality and provides natural pest control. Eventually benne became known as sesame and was grown specifically for oil production, loosing flavor as it was refined for this more profitable use. The benne grown for Anson Mills retains the original qualities, and can be used on its own or ground into a flour to bake with.

Jimmy Red Corn:

Grown on James Island off the coast of South Carolina, this dent corn has a rich, sweet taste, a red color, and an aroma of lavendar & chestnut. Originally cultivated by Native Americans, chef Sean Brock (Husk, Minero, McCrady’s)  reached out to Ted Chewning, a farmer on James Island, to ask him to cultivate this variety of corn. Brock and Chewing eventually partnered with Anson Mills to continue cultivation.

Sea Island Red Peas:

Brought from Africa in the 17th century, the “ruddy and diminutive” field pea varietal is the original pea used in low country cuisine’s darling dish, Hoppin’ John. It provides bold flavor, exceptional nutrition, and a sweet, creamy richness. Most delicious when paired with smoked pork, these peas are ideally served over a bowl of Carolina Gold Rice Grits.

Sea Island White Peas:

Finding information about this varietal of field pea was difficult, but Sean Brock reports that he understands why it is no longer cultivated after three seasons worth of failed crops. Somehow we were able to snag some for Heirloom, though.

Recommended Reading:

The Third Plate: Field Notes on The Future of Food by Dan Barber

The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge

Heritage by Sean Brock

Anson Mills Rice Grits: True Grit from Southern Living

Anson Mills Boss Glenn Roberts Is The Guy To Know For Heirloom Grains In America from Food Republic

A Grits Revival With the Flavor of the Old South from The New York Times (The article responsible for the love of Glen Roberts & Kay Rentschler)

The Low Country Seed Savor Catalogue from Lucky Peach (Sean Brock’s tour of heirloom grains)

Jimmy Red Corn profile from The Ark of Taste from Slow Food USA

A Fresh Look: Carolina Grist a film from Southern Foodways Alliance

Anson Mills website