Here we are with the warm afternoons of October chasing away the morning cool and, sometimes, the morning fog. And our olive trees are beginning their slow slide thru veraison. This is that time in the developing fruits’ life cycles where the fruit starts to turn color, gradually ripening from green to a dark red or black. The olive oil producer can harvest at any time during this process to achieve different results. Early, “green”, harvest will produce a lighter and less pungent oil, but at the cost of the amount of oil that can be pressed. Later, “dark”, harvests will produce a darker and “oily” oil – this has all the unique tastes you would expect from a fine oil.
I just noticed the start of version on our trees today and I can’t help but be excited. Last year, we had a small harvest and a broken grinder at olive processing time. I don’t expect any disappointment this year; if the equipment breaks down again, then we will take our olives to a press to the south of us.
olive_flowersThe typical olive tree or olive branch flowers every two years; heavy fruit one cycle probably means less fruit the next (like an apple tree). The flowers form and pollinate in the spring; shortly after the tiny olives themselves begin to form, the fruit must survive abscission, a process that will destroy a very high percentage of the young fruit. Now it is water and care until the fruit has fully formed. Give them enough water, but do not overwater.
I advise against harvesting the hard, green early fruit. Rub your fingernail against the fruit’s flesh to see if you leave a slight depression; if you can’t do that, the fruit is way too young. You will also need to harvest much more green fruit in order to get a quantity of oil. Around here, in Northern California, our overall olive harvest has a nice mix of dark and semi-dark olives for the press starting in November. By December, and later, the olives are all shading into their dark, fully ripened state. These late olives have the richest, most flavorful oil, but you are running an increasing risk of damaged olives from frost and mold. These dark, ripe little things also offer the most quantity of pressed oil. The harvest is a bit of an art, but much like any garden harvest “art”; things are ready when they are ready – harvest then. We experiment each year, trying different harvest times and conditions.
Well, it is October and its time for us to get our friends together, plan a big meal and harvest. If it isn’t fun, you must be doing it wrong. At least, that’s the plan… First, get your tools; the Olive Source online offers branch combs that we have found very helpful; they also have harvest bags that we use, but cardboard boxes would work as well. We place a large piece of shade cloth down under the tree, slitting the fabric so it can go around the trunk, in order catch the fruit that the combs drop. We then put these in boxes in the shade. We do not wash them and we try to process immediately to no more than 24 hours later.
We have found ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place on pressing. We are in a very isolated area and the presses that would do pay work for us are far away. We have thought of using these public and semi-public presses since the anticipated olive harvest is almost ready for a commercial press – but we don’t think we have enough to meet their minimum weight requirements. The Olive Source offers a hobby pressing kit that is awkward but effective for small amounts. We purchased one and it was pretty much what we expected – a mite primitive. But it really is the best we could find on the web in its price range. We expect to move up to a small Italian press in a year or two. The public press is like $500 to get it done, the hobby press is something like $2000 and a low end commercial press is $15-20,000. For a small grower, moving up to a larger press is a commitment.
2013_veraison2There are actually hundreds of olive cultivars; olives have taken the world by storm and there is an olive tree for quite a variety of conditions. European olives are often grown on the poorest soils, leaving the bottom soil for other food crops. The Italian Tuscan and the Spanish olives are some of the toughest and some of the most tasty. They are often referred to as “rustic” and are known for their piquant taste. They can be very strong. We choose Leccino, Taggiasca, Frantoio and Arbequina as well as the pollinators Pendolino and Maurino in our orchard. Leccino and Frantoio have a mild straw colored oil and Taggiasca and Arbequina are intended to offer some bite. It has turned out that the Leccino, Frantoio and Taggiasca have done well, but the Arbequina and the Maurino have not. The Leccino is especially fruitful. We are thinking of introducing Coratina into the empty spots in the orchard soon.
We haven’t mentioned those yet. In the orchard’s third year, many of the trees were overcome by verticellum wilt and were either seriously set back or outright killed by this pathogen. Heavy composting seems to help, but many recommend cutting, burning and leaving the hole fallow for five years – whew! We have left the holes that were overcome vacant for several years now and plan to replant with the Coratina.
We are in a zone 9 climate area where our lows get down into the 20’s, and sometimes lower. We started to see leaf damage as we dipped into the teens. The fruit will also become pocked with damaged frost marks – if its bad, these olives will not make a great oil. Although it has not happened, I take comfort that the tree can die back to the ground and as long as the roots survive, the crown will produce fresh sprouts. You will need to wait but those developed crowns will come on strong.
And, at the end, we will have a sweet little bottle of semi-clear oil ready for us to try. First it will be a finger dipped into the oil; then a little oil dribbled on bread; I won’t forget our next salad, or our next sauté, when that piquant flavor of our rustic Tuscans will be the wow of the table. Artisanal…

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