On Saturday we camped at Joseph D. Grant County Park east of San Jose with Casey and Kyle. It was probably the coldest weather we’ve ever camped in—I’m pretty sure it got below freezing during night. Inside my sleeping bag I was wearing wool socks with heating packets, jeans, boxers, a tshirt, a fleece pullover, a hoodie, a winter jacket, and fleece gloves! It was not the most technical garb, and I probably should have been better prepared, but we’d only planned to camp for a single night. We were down there because one of Kyle’s coworkers had invited us to help pick olives at his wife’s family’s home in the nearby countryside.
Apparently their olive trees are a sort of hobby. They don’t sell the olive oil they produce, but everyone who picks gets a bottle, and they have lots leftover for Christmas gifts and personal use. The grove consists of three rows of 33 arbequina trees. They had picked the first row on Saturday, we worked on the middle row, and apparently the following weekend they’d do the last. Thank goodness we weren’t alone.
Our job was to strip the tree of every olive we could find (which wasn’t hard, as the trees were loaded), paying attention to avoid any that fruit flies might have laid their eggs in. The goal in timing the harvest is to get the olives as ripe and plump as possible before either the first freeze or the fruit flies get to them. Given the temperature the night before, they were cutting it close, but in two hours of picking we didn’t see a single bad olive. The four of us spent our entire time stripping a single tree, filling several of the two-gallon buckets in the process.
Around noon we broke for lunch and a demonstration of their imported Italian olive mill. First we helped manually sort the olives over a grid to rid them of leaves and other foreign matter. Then they went into the mill, which washed them, crushed them (pits and all), and churned them to allow the oil to partially coagulate. Finally this “tapenade” was spun in a centrifuge: out one side came the leftover olive pulp (“poop” is more like it), and out the other a tiny stream of golden-green oil. It takes 7 five-gallon buckets to make about ten liters of olive oil. Considering that in a single day we harvested 28 five-gallon buckets, their little hobby nets a lot of oil!
Of course we tasted the oil fresh out of the spigot. Previously I’d heard that olive oil starts quickly deteriorating after a year, but they felt that their oil, filtered of particulates and stored in a cool, dark location, actually improved and mellowed with age, lasting for several years. Go figure. I thought the fresh oil from that day’s picking was not bad, expectedly bitter, and a little astringent, almost numbing to my tongue. The oil we brought home was from last year’s harvest, which was still quite strong and peppery, but without any astringency.
I didn’t realize until I was there, with my hands in the trees, that this is something I’ve always wanted to do. I developed an early appreciation for olive oil (thanks to a stint in high school at an Italian restaurant) long before I could tolerate olives themselves, but it wasn’t until I started cooking with a certain Frenchwoman that I really began to appreciate good olive oil as a seasoning. The stories of Stephanie’s grandparents receiving liters of oil from their Provençal town’s cooperative mill in exchange for the fruits of their oliviers are fantasies to me. I’ve toured several French moulins, both old and new, but I’ve never before been up close and personal with an olive tree at harvest, or tasted oil fresh from the mill. I feel like I’m living out a slow-motion love affair with the olive—which I hope will one day culminate in a small orchard and some goats in the south of France. Until then, I’ll just have to look forward to next year’s harvest.