When we moved into our California home, we were thrilled to know that it came with a yard that contained two mature lemon trees and a navel orange tree. The yard was grossly overgrown and would require a lot of TLC to salvage, but we could see those trees and were excited to know that we had the potential to harvest citrus in our future. We could also identify rosemary, mint and fennel growing about and we just assumed everything else was ornamental. It wasn’t until we were there a few months, and were having our windows and doors replaced, that one of the workmen pointed out that two of these ‘assumed ornamentals’ were actually avocado trees. Terrific! We had wanted to plant an avocado tree in the yard and now we didn’t have to…they were already there!
Over the course of the first growing season, we thinned, weeded and pruned our way to discovery as we found other edible surprises about the yard – a pear tree that had been hacked into a shrub and a California bay (can be used for bay leaves) that had been sculpted into a hedge. As we were tearing out a dilapidated deck, we found the nursery tag by a tree that had been sheered into something that resembled a giant popsicle that identified it as a ‘Wilson Fruitless Olive Tree’. According to the label, the tree was drought-tolerant, didn’t bear fruit so it wasn’t messy and wasn’t susceptible to pests. It sounded like a pretty fine choice for use by a deck and is probably why the previous owner had planted it there. The only thing is, this fruitless olive DID bear fruit; albeit not a lot of fruit but olives none the less.
It didn’t take long before Chuck and I were pondering just what it would take to use those olives from our fruitless tree. Having never lived in a climate with any hope of sustaining an olive ranch, we were clueless when it came to the preparation of the fruit of the Oleaceae. When a newsletter from the Institute of Urban Homesteading showed up in my inbox offering a course in Olive Picking and Brining at a nearby olive ranch, we were signed up in a matter of minutes.
The venue for the course was the Hillcrest Ranch in Sunol, California. Owned and operated by Kathleen Elliott, the organic olive ranch has been in her family for generations and is home to Picholine, Manzanillo and Mission olive trees. As the property was once part of the Mission San Jose estate, her Mission olive trees are the very same Mission olive trees that were planted when Father Junipero Serra and his crew established the 21 missions up the coast of California from San Diego to Sonoma from 1769 to 1823. Pretty cool!
Kathleen produces olive oil, olive soaps and marinated olives on her ranch and has an open door policy if you want to stop by to make a purchase or participate in a class. At the start of our course, she asked around to see why everyone had chosen to participate that day. Answers ranged from “I love olives” to “I want to know what to do with the olives on our olive tree” to “I want to impress my girlfriend”. For Chuck and me, we fell into that second category although we do also love olives and I would have been impressed if he had taken me to an olive class 20 years ago!
With introductions out of the way, our first task was to go harvest some olives. We split up into small groups with each group taking a net, a few long sticks and a bucket before heading off into the olive tree grove. Each group found a tree that had not yet been harvested and set to work. Some of us held the net under the tree while others hit the branches causing the olives to fall down into the net. When the net got heavy, we offloaded the olives into the bucket and continued about our task at hand until all the buckets were full.
Now that we had olives, our next step was to sort. I have to admit this was a bit tedious as we looked over each olive one-by-one and determined if it needed to be discarded because it was bruised, dried out or damaged by the larvae of the olive fruit fly.
Our ratio of bad to good wasn’t great and Kathleen explained that it had been a bad year for olives; given drought, the age of her trees and the rapid increase in olive fruit flies in the area, we definitely discarded more olives than we were able to use but we appreciated the learning that came from that. It helped to properly set our expectations for what we might achieve from our one organic olive tree in our back yard.
Once we had enough olives to be able to brine a batch, we had to make some brine. People took turns filling a tub with distilled water and then stirring in sea salt until the water was saturated enough to be able to float a raw chicken egg. We then put our olives in a glass jar with a gasket seal and filled it up with brine.
Those jars now sit in a dark, cool closet for a couple of months at which point we can remove them, wash the salt away and marinate with flavors of our choosing. More about that in February or March.
Since taking our class, I have since come to learn that our Wilson’s Fruitless Olive tree is an offspring from the Manzanillo olive tree. Seeing the productivity of Kathleen’s Manzanillo olive trees, it is clear that our Fruitless Olive tree yields far fewer fruit. But if they really are pest free, we should be able to keep the olive fruit fly away and harvest plenty of olives for our needs. I’ll let you know come next fall.