If it’s fall in California, it’s time for the olive harvest… and if you’ve got 750 olive trees, you’re going to need some helping hands. That’s what’s going on this month at Highland Springs Ranch, a historic California ranch and inn with olive trees that date back as far as 1854.
Why the big push to harvest? To reap the maximum benefits from extra-virgin olive oil. Of all of the varieties of olive oil, extra-virgin olive oil (the first pressing of the olives) is the most prized and the most time-sensitive. As soon as the olives are picked, they are rushed straight to the mill, where they are rinsed, crushed into a paste, and the liquids are separated from the solids to yield the prized oil. Extra-virgin olive oil can go from tree to plate in just a matter of days, according to the California Olive Oil Council.
Earlier this week, we had a chance to join in a community olive harvest at Highland Springs Ranch, and we learned all about the good, clean (OK, actually dirty) fun you can have while picking olives. While some bigger ranches use large machines (and actually there are some smaller hand-held machines used at this ranch), much of the work at Highland Springs is done by hand.
The basic idea is that you’re looking for olives that are not too big (that’s a sign that there’s too much water content), and are a nicely mottled combination of purple and green (green is less ripe and dark purple is more ripe).
You also don’t want to make yourself crazy by picking olives one by one. The key is to cup your hands around a branch that’s loaded with olives and then slide your fingers down, releasing all of the olives into your cupped hands. (Note: You might be tempted to try one, but don’t bother. Olives straight from the tree don’t taste very good – they’re extremely tannic. You have to brine them if you want to eat them.)
How long does it take to fill a 30-pound bucket? For us amateurs who started out slowly, it took about 2 1/2 hours. Once we got the hang of it, though, the buckets filled up quickly and we could see how the experts could get the bucket filled in under an hour.
Then we watched the buckets drive off to their next destination – the mill – where within days, they’ll be transformed into “California’s liquid gold” – extra-virgin olive oil.
Want to join in the fun? If you’re in Southern California, there’s one more community olive harvest day on Sunday, November 19 from 9:00 to 5:00. Our recommendations: Bring gloves. Don’t get too hung up on finding the “perfect” olive. And have fun.