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A Passion for Olives

excerpted from “Fruit of the Friars,” Los Angeles Times Magazine, October 2000

In the late 1700’s, along the trail that leads from one California mission to another, followers of Father Junipero Serra planted olive trees not only for culinary reasons but to recall their Spanish homeland. Today the silvery trees grace many gardens, and California produces great quantities of the bland, highly processed black olives that children have long loved to brandish on the ends of their fingers. Oddly, while Californians have a clear affection for the olive, they have only recently begun experiencing the depth of flavor that the fruit can offer, a complexity that moved Lawrence Durrell to write of “a taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water.”

I, too, had a limited notion of olives until one day on the northern Aegean island of Chios I came across a homely, straw colored olive that had been home–cured in a tiny mountain village. My passion for its astonishing flavor led me to an olive importer who opened up a whole new vista of naturally fermented, unpasteurized olives. Olives that are canned or bottled have often undergone high temperature pasteurization and other chemical treatments that rob them of their distinctiveness. But unpasteurized olives are true to their Mediterranean roots, with a wilder, more complex flavor. Sounding like a winemaker, the importer spoke of olives in terms of varietials and terroir and the vagaries of fermentation, as well as in evocative adjectives of taste: minerally, mushroomy, winey, grassy, prune–like.

Traditionally cured olives are finally coming into their own in Southern California with many varieties, available at specialty markets like Whole Foods, where they are displayed loosely piled into crocks. But these olives are largely from Europe and North Africa; home–curing here is a rarity. So I was delighted to stumble on a small group of friends in Santa Barbara County who for decades have been harvesting the local olives and curing them the time–honored way. One, 79–year–old Ozzie DaRos, learned the art from his Italian forebears. Another, J.J. Hollister, comes from one of California’s oldest families, and olives were just one of many resources, such as beekeeping and making wine from local grapes, that the ranchers around Santa Barbara took advantage of when he was a boy.

Every winter the friends harvest about 20 gallons of olives on Hollister’s ranch, Arroyo Hondo, about 30 miles north of Santa Barbara. Many of the trees from which they pick were planted by the Spanish missionaries. The men painstakingly sort green olives from the ripe, then cure them in salt or a mild lye solution to remove their astonishing bitterness and unlock the intense, resonant flavor of home–cured olives, a process that can take a few days to several weeks to complete. “Our original motivation,” says Hollister, “was simply to be able to have good olives at a time, years ago, when none were available.” But the experience brought other pleasures. “I love being in the quiet groves, picking olives from the extraordinary ‘Padre’ tree, some 4 feet around and, at almost 200 years old, witness to so much local history,” says DaRos.

Click the image to read a companion recipe, Nicoise Olives with Rosemary
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