The Olive Orchard
In the midst of our current foodie culture, the word “harvest” is a romanticized idea that glosses over the hardships and realities of long hours in the winter shade. In September or October, a few days beneath the full silver canopy of the Oleaceae wouldn’t be so trying, but come late November when the olives are just turning from bright green to a darkening mottled red, numb hands and tired backs are the sacrifices required for the liquid green gold of fresh-pressed olive oil.
Every year at the Cuneo family ranch, the late fall olive harvest is a community effort with grandmother Carole Marz alongside her grown children and nearby-neighbors pressed into service for two days of “back to the land.” In this grove of some 300 trees perched on a steep hill of burnt sienna colored clay, someone must shake the olives from the trees while another clears the fruit of leaves and twigs.
Perhaps most important of all, someone must prepare and deliver lunch for the crew—preferably a large pot of hearty stew with thick slices of fresh toasted bread and heavy drizzles of last year’s oil, all served from the bed of the truck under the warmth of the winter sun.
Though all of the work must be meticulously attended to and completed as quickly as possible, the harvest is a tradition so unchanged by time that the entire affair can seem attractively quaint. There are no machines here nor modern pesticides, only poles, tarps, baskets and conversation to mark the passing of time.
Following the discovery of gold in the Mother Lode in 1849, immigrants fleeing the turmoil of the Italian unification movement set their course for the placer mines intent on unearthing their fortunes. On arrival in the foothills, many Genovese found the land to be so much like the home they’d left behind, they settled in as if they’d never left. Just as they’d done in hills and valleys of Liguria, many entrepreneurs set to planting vineyards, orchards and bountiful vegetable gardens, providing fresh food to the rurally isolated towns and camps. As the placers closed and miners moved on to other regions, the Italian families remained along with their stores, cultural societies and hard-built homesteads.
Driving through the foothills on Jackson Gate Road, you pass by the Chicazola general store that still bears its markings after a century of well-weathered years. On the site of the old Buscaglia’s Ristorante sits a newly constructed Tuscan-style villa reserved for picturesque weddings and banquets, the lumbering tailing wheels of the Kennedy Gold Mine visible through a stand of live oaks. It was on this road that Anthony Caminetti was born and raised, later becoming the first native-born Californian elected to US Congress, and a few miles away, Angelo Noce seeking to celebrate the achievements of his community conceived of his master plan to establish Columbus Day as a national holiday.
Up a winding oak-lined road you’ll find the Cuneo homestead, its deed signed by President Grant for a swath of land that would grow over the years to encompass hills, valleys and dense pine forests extending from the snow line to the banks of the Mokelumne River. Six generations later, the property is stewarded by cousins, siblings and the strong and smiling matriarch, 73-year-old Carole Marz. Her modest clapboard home sits at the top of a rutted gravel drive, sheep and horses blankly inspecting visitors driving by. It’s here in this pastoral valley that Mrs. Marz has been tending to the 100-year-old olive orchard since 1945, joining her family in the grove for the first time when she was only 4 years old. Now it’s her children who organize the harvest.
Carole’s son Dana Baker stands overlooking the trees planted by his great-great-grandmother Biggia, whose name is affixed to labels in years when there’s oil to sell. For generations the family had been harvesting the orchard, but in recent decades the trees have become thick and overgrown. A properly pruned canopy is normally kept low and open, allowing for more fruit to ripen in the light—a Tuscan adage about potatura, or pruning, states that a swallow can pass through the branches of a well-kept tree.
The Biggia grove, however, has turned into a cathedral of greenery, its heavy branches arching over pathways stretching some 12 feet overhead.
Through the years, those family members who still tended the trees saw the benefits as waning, the work of pruning and harvesting less enticing when weighed against busy family lives, careers and other farm chores that demanded priority.
My own parents, “immigrants” to the area from Kansas City a mere 24 years ago, have spent the last 18 years settling their own organic homestead, the Boggs Market Farm, on top of a hill with a long view of the open valley floor below. The Cuneo family borders half of the Market Farm property, and in 2009 my folks took interest in the olive grove they could see from the road below. Though they had never worked with Oleas, their enthusiasm was enough to rouse the neighbors for an upcoming harvest. ‘The next fall the crop was light, the trees’ cyclical production lending to heavy and nada yields from year to year, and the venture was scrapped for lack of enough fruit. It was finally in 2011 that the trees sprang back to life with two tons of easily gathered olives, and the oil was split between the harvesters to do with as they pleased, giving my family their first taste of sharp and spicy oil, so fresh and green it tasted like grass and unlike any they’d ever had before.
By the next November the Boggses were hopelessly addicted, and the bounty of the trees provided, though with half the yield of the previous year. The 12 gallons that my family took home was used liberally at first—given as prized gifts to friends and family, traded as a local currency in exchange for labor, and then used more judiciously as the months wore on and the threat of running out before the pressing of 2013 seemed imminent.
Dana looks up from the base of a tall and hardened Kalamata tree, skimming the canopy for signs of how the harvest will be this year. His heavy Carhartt jacket is the same dusty color as the still-dry grass, his coffee mug sending a curl of steam into the crisp December air, slowly warming beneath the late morning sun. Reaching up and squeezing a black-ripe olive, it excretes a milky substance that when tasted is bitter enough to seem lethally poisonous. This is the sign of a good olive. In other parts of the grove where more sun cuts through the branches, the fruit is already overripe and the pulp when squeezed gives off a sticky purple juice. When pressed for oil this glossy black-ripe fruit results in a very mild product low in polyphenols (a measure of its antioxidant qualities), its flavor quickly fading and woefully lacking the peppery bite that gives green-ripe olive oil its robust, albeit an acquired taste, complexity.
After two years running of strong production, the canopies are looking light. The long warm fall led the olives that emerged to ripen quickly and walking through the field on the first day of December, very few trees still bear the bright green and red-turning fruit most desirable for pressing. There’s likely enough to gather the one-ton minimum required by the mill, and the oil though not spectacular would be better than nothing at all.
I consult my phone for clues as to what the future holds, roaming the orchard for a signal strong enough to check the forecast. While Thanksgiving had been warm enough for short sleeves, freezing nights are quickly setting in. If a frost sets in on the trees the fruit will spoil, rendering rancid oil. If we are going to get anything at all, we know we must pick soon.
As each year many of the harvesters are participating for the first time (once, it would seem, is enough for many to never volunteer again), there is a learning curve: Unpracticed hands require some time to find their flow and become efficient. Once in swing, though, the process drives itself.
The “beaters” beat the upper canopy with sturdy but flexible poles, causing the fruit to detach and fall. The falling fruit is then artfully dodged and simultaneously caught by supporters brandishing a large tarp. As one tarp fills, another group of supporters takes their place, and the first load is moved to a sorting station where the leaves and twigs are picked out by hand (or laid bare by a leaf-blower, if we’re lucky enough to have one). As the clean fruit is deposited in a bin, the first group hurries back to the tree, swapping out with the second crew who now moves to sort their load.
The dance lasts from early morning until dusk makes the falling fruit too difficult to spot, the pickers’ toes long since numb and their lower backs spasmodic. The next day, it all begins again.
Since the fruit begins to deteriorate the moment it’s pulled from the tree, the race to pick and deliver in as little time as possible requires a herculean effort. For our harvest, the picking takes two full and enervating days so the olives can be pressed fewer than 72 hours after leaving the trees. It takes around 100 man-hours to complete the harvest, usually shared between a group of 10 people—if you can find 10 people willing help. The cost of pressing one ton at a mill is upwards of $400, and a further $12 a case if you want it bottled and capped. A minimum of $600 later you come away with 25 gallons divided into 25 cases. Taken to market, the cost necessarily triples to account for labor and profit.
The fallacy around extra-virgin olive oil is that high-quality products can be made on the cheap, but true extra virgin, a quality defined as pure first-press oil with no notable flavor defects such as “fustiness,” is inherently expensive to produce. As widely documented by Tom Mueller’s book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, extra-virgin oil sold at less than the going rate is by and large hardly olive oil at all. The majority of these cut-rate products consist mostly of the lowest-grade industrially extracted oil, chemically processed to remove offensive taste and odor, and finally cut with any number of cheap substitutes such as cottonseed or palm kernel oil. A study by the UC Davis Olive Oil center in 2011 determined that as much as 79% of “extra-virgin” oils sold in California supermarkets failed sensory standards tests, containing few to none of the health benefits touted by “extra virgin” because they were, in fact, nothing of the sort.
Though good local oils like Barioli, vouched for by respected local grocers such as Corti Brothers, make Sacramento a more honest town in which to find quality products, the flavor my family craves most is the terroir of the Cuneo homestead: the dry grass on the hill; the bitter fruit picked with our own hands; the always-running spring that over-waters an outlying tree, its fruit always greener than the rest and added to the blend for a distinctive spiciness. Oil, no matter where it’s from, always has a story to tell.
As the harvest weekend approaches, the temperature steadily drops in the foothills, a low of 40, of 32, of 25. No one has to ask to know that nature has beaten us again and there will be no harvest this year after all. Though we’ve warmed up to the idea of sitting inside near the fireplace rather than tromping over the hardened frost-swept ground for a long two days, the thought of a full year without our own oil is a future that none of us really wants to face. The sad fact becomes “that which must not be mentioned” as we spread our bread with that unsavory substitute called butter.
Next year we vow to check the olives earlier, to keep tabs on them through the autumn, leaving nothing to chance or weather, because next year we know there is bound to be a bumper crop.