Falling down the rabbit hole: California olive history + curing my own

NOTE: This is what happens when I can’t sleep — food history research! Sleep deprivation or no, it can be a fun journey, leading down many different, very colorful trails.  California ag history is especially rich and well-documented.  Should you get the bug, you have been given fair (and fun) warning.

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When California was still the undisturbed home of the Chumash, Tongva and Yokuts, the local abundance of resources available to them cemented them as hunter-gatherers. Seeds like acorns were a dominant part of the diet and over thousands of years, they adapted to fit the local environment, their bodies finely tuning themselves to water scarcity and seasonal wild harvests. There were no oranges, no walnuts (actually I take that back, there is the endemic Juglans Californica, but that’s another post.), and no olives.

That changed with the arrival of the first Spanish and British explorers in the 16th century. And the Spanish, having already established a long string of church sanctuaries in South America, eventually worked their way up the coast to found the first California mission — San Diego de Acalá — in 1769. It was the first of 20 missions the Spanish would plant in California, and with them came Spanish agriculture and tastes.  Wheat for bread.  Cattle for dairy and meat. And pivotal, for both them and the future of California, the olive, which perhaps more than any other crop made them more self sufficient.  Thanks to the olive, they had lubricant, lamp oil, soap, medicine and of course, calorie and nutritive dense food.

San Diego de Acalá, along with being the first mission in California, was also the first to press its own olive oil. Cuttings from Spanish olive trees that had been established in Peru were propagated  in the late 1700′s, starting what would become a tree dynasty that would continue until today.

(Interesting coincidental side note:  Acala  (or Ācala, Achala अचल; Fudō-myōō (不動明王) – literally “immovable” one.) is one of fierce, angry-faced guardian deities of Vajrayana Buddhism, otherwise known as esoteric Buddhism and is particularly revered by Buddhists in Japan.)

After the missions were secularized in 1834, the olive groves of Acalá were left to run wild. Secularization meant the church’s many mission acres were no longer theirs and were subsequently distributed via land grants to  politically appropriate friends of the government, which a that time was Mexico.  In 1838, a mission inspector  would report visiting two olive orchards at Acalá, “one of 300 trees and another of 167 trees.” But mission agriculture was abandoned by the new landowners in favor of cattle ranching to satisfy a growing market for meat back east.  Only around the little Pueblo de los Angeles were a few intrepid farmers trying their hands at grapes and citrus (Jean Louis Vignes and William Wolfskill).  The old olive groves were either torn down or left to their own devices.  The groves at Acalá were left largely untouched during this time, except for a brief period where United States troops used Acalá as a military post during the U.S. Mexican War and almost, but not quite, decimated the orchard for firewood.

California became a state following the Bear Flag Rebellion in 1846, and few years later, gold was discovered.  An “irrational exuberance” for olive farming and its potential to make one wealthy was in part fueled by the go-west fever following the Gold Rush and citrus boom.  That fever brushed aside a few pivotal points — olive trees take almost seven years (not the one year some articles proclaimed) to establish themselves, are slow to fruit and need time to begin producing quality crops. When the olive-fever trees finally started bearing, their early crops were insipid, damaged further by farmers and processors who really had no idea what to do with them. In 1873, Frank Kimball, often called the father of the olive industry, would come back to those remaining Acalá “Madre trees” and use them as a cutting source to join California’s new olive boom.

Media enthusiasm, well-founded or not, continued unabated. Sunset Magazine, the west’s shining storyteller of the California dream, published an article in their November 1900 issue titled, “Gold Mines Atop the Ground,” which amazingly enough is available online via Google Books. The entire issue is a FASCINATING read, but if olives are your interest, scroll to page 97. One of the gems from that article was this sentence:

“That pale, greenish-yellow, limpid, sweet, inodorous liquid that runs from the first squeeze of the press in the oil mill is called “virgin” oil.”

One can practically imagine the pucker-lipped fluttering of a Victorian-era editor concerned about the implied sexual overtones. But then again, this is California. There are other mentions of purity, salad happiness, California’s dominant “empire of climate” and the shocking notion that we’d grow tired of oranges, surely, but never, ever of olives. Big words during those times, especially when in this same issue at the very front of the magazine is a full page advertorial taken out by the Riverside Chamber of Commerce titled, “The Greatest Orange Growing District on Earth.” Funny that the paid ad would spout more truth than the journalistic wanderings of A.L. Wells, but there you have it.

Olives did eventually boom. Kind of. At least not in the way various California agriculture enthusiasts of the time would have you believe. A major turning point would come from the city where the California olive was first established. C.M. Gifford, a former tugboat captain from the Great Lakes, went to San Diego in hopes of starting a citrus orchard. A taste of some locally pickled olives changed his mind and he eventually became known for driving a horse drawn carriage full of pickled olive barrels around his new city. An excerpt from The Journal of San Diego History states:

“From the first, Gifford experimented with new processing methods. He consulted with an agricultural scientist, Professor F. T. Bioletti of the University of California who, in 1899, had helped to perfect the process for canning olives. Gifford’s business changed dramatically in 1902 when he began packaging olives in tin cans. He won the first ever award for “canned pickled olives” from the San Diego Agricultural Association in 1902 and collected many subsequent prizes for his olive products. In 1906, it was reported that San Diego canneries had produced “not less than 120,000 cans of ripe olives” in the past year and that the industry was expected to double in San Diego County.”

And that was when olives started to become the cash crop so many people were banking on. In cans, California olives could be exported all over the country. And they were. By 1928, Gifford was the king of olives in California and a very rich man.

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Today, you couldn’t get me to eat a “traditional” California canned olive if you paid me. European imports, once heavily scorned by the likes of A.L. Wells, have introduced a plethora of curing techniques that lack that tinny, metallic quality found in so many, once-hailed brands of olives. My one exception being Graber. Great history. Great facility (which I toured back in 2005). No tinny flavor but their brining method is very old school and ergo, lacks modern punch. Their olives are great quality for canned though, and I often adulterate them with a stronger, garlicky brine and seasoned oil.

Home curing and pressing is a simple, if long process. The giant Manzanillos fermenting on my countertop won’t be ready for at least another three months. So, I wait, diligently doing brine and water changes like clockwork.

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One of the recipes I follow — brine-cured Sicilian style olives — comes from the University of California, which provides a very thorough and handy olive curing document online (the recipe is on page 7). It’s a favorite among the Master Food Preserver crowd and not a few of us have fermentation jars bubbling away right now, chock full of green, red and black olives. It’s the California way.

My LA Weekly piece on the California Mission olive may be read here.

I didn’t go out to various mission libraries or peruse the State Library up in Sacramento for info.  I’m just a rabid Internet hound when it comes to California agriculture and many people have very kindly made their academic publications, complete with miles of citations, available for free on the web.  I’d like to particularly thank the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics for their essay, “A Stylized History of California Agriculture from 1769 to 2000,” Nancy Carol Carter for, “San Diego Olives: Origins of a California Industry,” and Sunset Magazine and Google for helping me see just how far the rabbit hole goes.  Seriously, Google Books is a resource of unsurpassed greatness.

2 thoughts on “Falling down the rabbit hole: California olive history + curing my own

  1. Pingback: California olive history and curing your own | The Inquisitive Eater

  2. Pingback: How I spent my winter vacation + new year wishes | Urban Schmurban

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