Sept./Oct. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Richard Green
Ancient Greeks discovered them, but a modern way of curing them began in California.
Olives may be a stone fruit like peaches, plums and cherries, but try eating one straight off the tree and you may not like the results.
As bitter and unpalatable as it may be in its raw form, this tiny fruit has been cultivated and used as food and a source of oil for thousands of years, most notably by ancient Greeks, who recognized the olive as a symbol of peace.
California's history with the olive began in the 1700s, when the first olive cuttings were planted at Mission San Diego de Alcala by Franciscan monks who brought them from Peru. Today, the Golden State produces nearly all of the olives grown in the U.S., even though California olives make up only about 1 percent of olives grown worldwide.
Steve Henderson, above, with bins of recently harvested olives, which are sorted, below, before processing.
Whether they are eaten whole, in a salad, on top of a pizza or with a martini, olives generally still must be cured—much like in the old days—or they won't taste so great. Many different curing methods are used around the world, but in California, more than 90 percent of the crop becomes black ripe olives.
The term is somewhat of a misnomer because olives used to make black ripes are actually picked green when they're not fully ripe, said Steve Henderson, plant superintendent at Bell-Carter Foods, one of two major olive processors in the state. The company, which houses its production facility in Corning, in Tehama County, makes the Lindsay brand of olives that is a familiar fixture in U.S. stores.
"Olives will ripen on a tree and turn black, but they'll get soft and spongy and won't hold," Henderson said. "As a canner, we want them as green and firm as you can to start with, and we'll turn them black."
Cure for the common olive
Bell-Carter's seven-day curing process starts with putting the olives in a lye solution to leach out the bitterness, followed by cold-water rinses. These two steps are repeated several times throughout the seven days, during which air is also stirring constantly through the olives. This air is what turns the fruit black, Henderson explained.
Bell-Carter also makes green ripe olives, which go through a nearly identical curing process, except their tanks are not subjected to air, allowing the fruit to retain its green color, he added.
Bell-Carter Foods employee Victor Nunez shows the tool used to remove pits from a green ripe olive.
After curing, a trace of organic iron salt, or ferrous gluconate, is added so the olives will maintain their rich color after the cans are stored. Finally, the olives are packed in a solution of brine, or saltwater, and heat-sterilized according to state health rules.
"There's an art to this," Henderson said. "You can speed up or retard this process somewhat, but if you don't know what you're doing, you can mess up a lot of fruit."
This particular method of curing olives can be traced back to the late 1800s, when a housewife named Freda Ehmann began experimenting with a few barrels on her back porch, thus laying the foundation for canned black olives, according to the Butte County Historical Society.
Now considered the "mother" of the modern olive canning process, Ehmann at the time was merely trying to develop a market for the olives from her 20-acre orchard near Oakland. Up until that time, olives had been grown primarily for oil, and olive curing and canning had not been reliably successful.
The olives run through a floatation salt wash, which sinks any unpitted fruit to the bottom, while the pitted ones are canned.
What made Ehmann's technique distinctive was that she insisted the olives not be pickled until they were black. Within a year, demand for her olives was greater than her orchard could supply. She later moved to Oroville, in Butte County, looking for a dependable supply of olives for her rapidly growing business and built an olive processing plant there. Her basic recipe is still followed today.
During olive harvest, which generally starts in September and goes into November, Bell-Carter will bring 350 tons of olives into its plant each day, producing 10 million cases of olives, or 240 million cans, per year.
The faces behind the olives
Between Bell-Carter, Musco Family Olive Co. (the state's other major olive cannery) and several smaller processors that make Sicilian-style and other specialty olives, California processes 80,000 to 125,000 tons of olives annually from 27,000 acres, according to the California Olive Committee. More than half of the state's acreage is located in the San Joaquin Valley, with the lion's share belonging to Tulare County. The remaining acreage is in Northern California, specifically Butte, Glenn, Sacramento and Tehama counties.
The cans are then subjected to heat sterilization.
Ed Curiel, who supplies olives to Bell-Carter, is one of some 1,000 olive farmers in the state. Although his family didn't start growing their own olives until 2001, they had a long history harvesting them before that. Curiel's father, Jose, emigrated from Mexico in the early 1960s to work in California orchards, picking olives, peaches and other crops. His family made Corning their home base in the 1980s and years later bought the orchard that they farm today from one of his uncles.
"I grew up around olives and used to pick them when I was a kid," Curiel said. "And then we got into growing. I guess it was a natural evolution."
Farmer Ed Curiel holds a tray of harvested olives, which are picked green and by hand to ensure quality.
Curiel said he likes black olives with his spaghetti or on top of meat, but his favorite way to eat them is alongside a sandwich.
What kind of olives grow here?
California grows two main varieties that go into making table olives: Manzanillo, which represents most of the state's acreage, and Sevillano, which produces the larger-sized olives that are usually marketed as "jumbo" or "extra-large." This variety is also ideal for making Sicilian-style olives that are often stuffed with pimento, garlic or cheese. The remaining varieties are made into various specialty styles or crushed for oil.
While mechanical harvesting can be used for some oil varieties, table olives are generally still picked by hand to ensure quality. The challenge for farmers, Curiel said, is the small window of time his crew has to get the fruit off the trees before they become too ripe for canning. There can be 1,000 olives on each tree, and a skilled picker can harvest about a ton per day, or about 50 40-pound boxes, he said.
"When we went camping, I made sure I had some olives," he said. "Instead of having a sandwich with chips, I'll throw some black ripes next to the sandwich and eat them that way."
Can do's, can don'ts
In many households, an open can of olives goes fast, but what if you have leftovers? Here are some tips from the California Olive Committee (www.calolive.org) on how to store them:
- Once opened, store unused olives in their original brine in the open can and cover with plastic wrap to allow oxygen to permeate.
- Partially used cans may be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.
- If the original brine has been discarded, replace with a solution of one cup water and one-half teaspoon salt.
- The shelf life for unopened cans is 36 to 48 months, stored at room temperature.