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Not too long ago, I found myself at a table in the Texas Hill Country enjoying a delicious picnic in the middle of an olive grove. Wait. Olive groves in Texas? It was once a far-fetched idea, but that was before Jack Dougherty came from California in 1990, bought his ranch, Bella Vista, and noticed the similarities between his soil in California, where he had a few olive trees, and the dirt at his new property in Wimberley, Texas.

"Olive trees like crappy soil, intense heat and no rain," he says. He's standing surrounded by his olive grove, wearing an old pair of jeans and blue T-shirt, his skin tanned from years in the sun. "That's pretty much what they get here." Although he was told by experts that olive trees wouldn't grow in Texas, he planted some anyway. That was in 1998, and within three years, he harvested his first crop, becoming the first olive oil producer in the history of the Lonestar State, he says.

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Anne Braly

Through the years, he adds, there have been four major weather events that have damaged his crop. "Bad weather doesn't come often," he says. "But we do get sudden cold snaps — Blue Northers — that have damaged trees. That's just the risk you have to take, and when it's over, you hope you have something to work with. But olive oil trees are tough trees. In the Mediterranean, there are trees that are 2,500 years old and are still producing."

He grows 16 varieties of olives, including California Mission olives, which produce good olives to eat and olive oil for drizzling. In 1998, Dougherty planted the only crop of Coratina olives outside of Italy.

The olives are hand-picked each fall, mostly by women. "A lot of women volunteer to help pick because they've seen 'Under the Tuscan Sun.' But they find it's not that easy — not that romantic," Dougherty says with a somewhat wicked chuckle. "I can look at an olive tree, and if the spectrum is just right, I know it's time to harvest. And if we get it right, those olives will make good extra-virgin olive oil."

First Texas olive oil, as the oil produced at Bella Vista Ranch is named, is consistently ranked among the top olive oils made in America, and Dougherty is looking toward the future as demand for olive oil rises.

"The population of olive trees is declining throughout the world, while the popularity of olive oil is rising," he says. "It's an important oil in China, and as demand is rising and supply is falling, we find ourselves in a rather fortunate situation."

If you happen to be in the Texas Hill Country, Dougherty's olive oil can be bought directly from the ranch, which is open noon to 5 p.m. on weekends. You can also stop by for tastings of the several flavors of oils, ranging from extra-virgin to blood orange to basil. The oil also can be purchased online at www.texasoliveoil.com.

There are flavored olive oils made by other companies in stores around Chattanooga, and making your own, such as basil olive oil, is a simple process.

Basil Olive Oil

Wash 2 cups of basil leaves, then blanch them in boiling water for 1 minute.

Remove and place in an ice bath to cool down.

Squeeze out water, and dry with paper towel.

Place blanched basil, 1 cup good-quality olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt into a blender or food processor and puree. After it settles for a minute, pour into a glass container. Allow to sit for a day or two for the oil to absorb the flavor, then it's ready for use in myriad ways.

Here are some of the suggestions I picked up at the ranch.

» Drizzle a little over pasta with feta cheese, fresh tomatoes and black olives.

» Add to baked potatoes instead of butter, and finish with Parmesan cheese.

» Sprinkle your tuna sandwich with basil olive oil, chopped tomatoes and celery.

» Drizzle some over sliced chicken or turkey breast for taste and color.

Olive oil is not particularly good for frying, but use your imagination. It's a healthful alternative to butter and vegetable oils and can be used in many creative ways to add flavor and beauty to so many dishes.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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