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California’s ‘pearls’ of flavor come rolling in

With deep roots in California, olives somehow remain a misunderstood crop. Most people know this fruit only out of a can.

Yes, olives are fruit (not vegetables) although they’re almost always savory, not sweet. Straight off the tree, they’re impossibly bitter, but their final taste – after curing – brings out their inner richness.

This is olive picking time throughout California’s Central Valley. Like most crops this weird weather year, the olives arrived early – almost two weeks ahead of schedule. Harvest stretches from late September through early November. These olives will be processed, canned and shipped year round to consumers throughout the United States.

Unlike olives destined for the oil press, table olives must be hand picked to avoid bruising. Any flaws are magnified in processing; a bruised or soft olive will explode in the pitting machine. (Olives for oil can be shaken off the trees.)

Picked when mostly green, olives are ready just as they start to turn color; at first, streaks of pale yellow appear, followed by some purple speckles. If left to fully ripen on the tree (to black-purple), they’ll become very mushy when cured.

“Like bananas, olives are a crop best picked green,” explained Ben Hall of Musco Family Olive Co. “When they get a little straw tint, they’re just perfect. Fully dark fruit makes a soft olive, and that’s not what you want.”

More than 1,000 family farms grow table olives in California, which accounts for more than 95 percent of the domestic crop. Due to contractions in the state’s olive industry, only two major processing plants handle all those table olives. About 80 percent will become the familiar California black olives; others will be processed as green or specialty olives (such as stuffed or Sicilian). A few small operations still dot the valley.

The Erikson family has been growing table olives near Madera for five generations. Their oldest trees were planted in the 1880s and are still producing a healthy harvest.

Unlike most fruit trees, olives can grow and keep bearing for centuries. (By contrast, commercial peach trees stay in production just 12 to 15 years.) It takes an olive tree 10 to 15 years before it bears its first full crop.

“There are olive trees in Greece that date back 2,000 years,” said Lee Erikson. “If you keep the tree healthy, it has no end.”

“The best part of working with olives are these majestic trees,” said Jim Erikson, his father. “The hard part is getting people to eat them.”

California olive growers have felt intense market pressure from lower-priced olives from Spain and emerging olive regions such as Africa. California boasted 70,000 acres of olives at its peak; now, it’s about 30,000 acres, with former olive orchards converted to grapes, almonds or pistachios.

Their battleground is pizza toppings.

“We’ve lost a lot of pizza business because Spain’s (product) is so much cheaper,” olive grower David Depaoli said. “But consumers can taste the difference. California olives taste milder.”

Centrally located Musco Family Olive Co. in Tracy and century-old Bell-Carter Foods in Corning at the valley’s north end process all those olives. Bell-Carter ranks as the second-largest table olive processing plant in the world.

Musco specializes in California black ripe olives, the kind kids love to stick on their fingers. (In fact, that image is part of the company’s logo.) Its sprawling tank complex can hold enough processed olives to put them on four fingers of every person on the planet – about 28 billion black olives.

“There are hundreds of different olives, but basically it comes down to three (groups) based on processing,” Hall said during a plant tour. “There are olives fermented in salt brine; that’s your kalamatas and Greek olives. There are olives treated with a caustic soda-and-alkali solution, then fermented. Those are Spanish-style olives. Then, there are California-style olives. They’re fermented first, then get the caustic treatment.”

Built for sustainability, Musco’s state-of-the-art processing plant burns oil-packed olive pits for fuel; 15 tons of pits are a daily byproduct of canning, said environmental manager Dennis Leikam.

“They’re just like wood,” Leikam said. “For us, pits are the perfect fuel source. They have so much oil, they burn really hot.”

Brining water is recycled in part as irrigation water for large fields of salt-tolerant hay. Recyclable metal, plastic and paper are baled on site and sold for reuse in consumer products.

October is crazy busy as 18-wheelers roll in, loaded with tons of bright green fruit. After grading and sorting, olives make their way to holding tanks filled with brine. Rivers of green olives flow down miles of stainless steel flumes to their destinations in vinegar-filled 20-foot tanks. The largest tanks hold 45 tons, with 98 medium black olives to a pound.

Exposure to air during the seven-day curing process turns the olives a uniform shiny black. The same recipe is used for all these black olives, no matter what label they’ll eventually wear in the grocery store. Musco’s own brands are Early California and Pearls (marketed outside the state), but the plant also packs scores of house brands for supermarket chains.

The smallest olives are always sliced. Chopped olives mostly come as a byproduct of pitting. Removing the seed from 2,000 olives a minute, the rotary pitter punches out a cap of olive fruit at the same time; that “cap” gets chopped along with any olives broken during processing.

For schools and young consumers, Musco started packing olives in small snack packs with 10 kid-sized olives (one for each finger); that’s also considered one child-size serving of fruit. The plastic packs are easy to open and contain no brine, so no mess.

“We really want to get more olives into the schools,” Depaoli said. “That’s a natural market for us; kids love olives.”

More California chefs are putting olives on the plate in a wide variety of dishes. With growing interest in regionally grown foods, olives appeal to both locavores and lovers of Mediterranean cuisine. Besides being naturally high in antioxidants, they add a distinctive texture as well as rich flavor to appetizers, sandwiches, side dishes and entrees.

“I love to play around with one of my favorite things – olives,” said executive chef Ryan Jackson of The School House restaurant in Sanger, an area filled with old orchards. “I’ve loved them ever since I was a little kid. ... I love their texture. They can be salty, savory, even sweet. You can even put olives in dessert. Black olives have so much sweetness. They make a real nice contrast to other ingredients.”

And they’re great on pizza.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of olive pits that are a byproduct of canning at Musco Family Olive Co. The correct amount is 15 tons. Story was updated at 1:55 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23.