Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Foraging Report: Harvesting Oakland Olives

Wendy and Corvis

You're thinking, “I didn't know we had olive groves in Oakland.”  And we don't – per se.  But the trees are everywhere. Once you can recognize their distinctive gray-green silhouette, it's just a slight shift in awareness to start to see them everywhere you go.  They're commonly used as a landscaping plant in this climate because they're drought-tolerant with a beautiful metallic sheen to their leaves - planted in medians, on hillsides for erosion control, or as a pruned tree in a yard.  Frequently their harvest goes to waste because, if you pick an olive off the tree and taste it, your lips will curl into a small “O” of disgust at its intense bitterness.  It doesn't mean the tree is bad, it just means you have to do a little work to access the nutrient-packed, salty goodness that you expect in an olive.

The Harvest

My homesteading circle had been eyeing a row of olives planted on a wide median in North Oakland all fall.  The four trees were finally gauged ready when about 70% of the olives had turned black.  It was an overcast day in mid-November, with threatening clouds, but we decided to rush to take advantage of the break in the rains to pull out the ladders, bags and buckets.
Betsy spurned ladders and decided to climb

We must have been a curious sight, perched in the trees on a very busy intersection, because again and again we were asked by drivers at the stoplight or pedestrians: “What are you picking?” Olives, but then we have to cure them in salt water.  “I didn't know that's how you made olives!” 

It's one of the things I like best about foraging – the ways it provokes friendly interactions with my neighbors and puts me in the path of people I might not otherwise run across.  People came out of surrounding houses and offered us access to their plum, fig and persimmon trees, telling us their stories and sharing recipes.  It's a way to get people talking again.

Four of us working for two hours gathered 5 gallons of olives. We stopped when we started to feel raindrops, and awkwardly bundled the ladders back across  intersections. No sooner had we gotten them back in the side yard than it started to pour, the kind of rain where you walk out and are immediately soaked to the skin.  But we were stepping into a warm kitchen, ready to process mounds of what felt like pirate's booty, so we couldn't stop smiling.


We had picked both black and green olives, but decided to cure some of the green olives separately as an experiment.   There are lots of ways to cure olives – you can dry cure them, where you rub them with salt and hang them in a bag until they shrivel, but I prefer to brine them. After we washed them  and removed the very damaged olives and stems, we submerged them in a solution of 1 gallon water to 1 cup Kosher salt.  You need a way to keep them submerged, which in previous eras was done by a heavy piece of wood made to fit in the specially shaped, straight-sided olive jar. However, without specialized tools, Wendy came up with the brilliant idea of cutting down yogurt lids (with a hole to release air bubbles) so they'd fit in the necks of the large glass jars we were using and block the olives from rising to the top.
A few less-than-lovely aspects to prepare yourself for – sometimes olives have worms.  And the worms come out as the olives hit the salt water. So the first brine change a week later was hard to get through, but then it's done and doesn't affect the olives in the end.  Also, scum sometimes develops on the surface between brine changes, but I just remove it with a spoon (since the olives are submerged at least an inch below the surface, they're not in contact with the scum).  The scum is normal, but you don't want to let it get out of control.  If you let it develop a thick crust of mold, the olives can end up tasting moldy.  Slight scum: ok.  Thick mold: no go.

Today, months later, I changed the brine again in the 5 tall jars of olives that have been on my kitchen counter since the day we picked them.  Every 1-2 weeks I change the brine. Every time, I nibble on an olive or two to check that the bitterness is leaching out of them little by little.  They are so close!  I am starting to get antsy; curing olives is an exercise in delayed gratification.

Several classes are offered on olive curing in the area including one from Homespun Bikes on February 6th.  Classes are also offered seasonally at UC Botanical Gardens and the Institute of Urban Homesteading.


  1. worms! eek! lol- I guess they are full of protein though ;)

  2. I know, it was a little hard to stomach. The good thing was that clearly the response when they hit the salt water is to GET OUT AT ALL COSTS - and if they exited the olives they are definitely washed out of the mix in the multiple brine changes since then. Gross, but if all else fails, yes, protein. :)