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Eventually the bulk of California olive production settled into enclaves in the San Joaquin and northern Sacramento Valleys. The original purpose of growing olives had been to obtain oil, but as the population became more Anglo and less Hispanic following the Gold Rush, the focus changed to cured olives. A bonus of the Gold Rush was mining ditches that could be adapted into use as irrigation canals to water large-scale orchards. An olive growing and processing industry developed at the same time as other types of fruit production. It was spurred on by the arrival of numerous Italian immigrants with a taste for olive products.
The industry started, as many do, as a cottage industry in someone’s kitchen with the olives being sold loose out of barrels in the local store. By 1900, milder (i.e. not bitter) American style, non-ethnic tasting olives were being canned by many small companies. Growers banded together into associations and started a fierce marketing campaign that successfully made olives indispensable in everything from martinis (green olives) to relish trays (black olives). Presently there are 1,317 farms and something over 30,000 acres of olive orchards in California.
If you want to know all the details of the story, buy The Olive in California, History of an Immigrant Tree by Judith Taylor or request it at your library.
But how does the bitter fruit get transformed into such a taste treat? Olive processing seems complicated but can be done quite easily at home with a little care. You might be surprised to learn that even black olives start out green. Olives will eventually soften, turn dark and fall off the tree, and these can be made into the salty dried Greek style olives, but olives to be cured are picked by hand when hard and green or just beginning to take on a blush. The extreme bitterness is leached out by soaking in a lye solution (you know, Draino). After the lye penetrates nearly to the pit, they are drained then repeatedly soaked and rinsed for several days to remove the lye. Then they can be stored in a salty brine and kept cool, with small amounts removed for seasoning and eating as desired.
The black “ripe” olives are really no riper than any other olives but are exposed to air several times during the processing between the soakings, which oxidizes and darkens them. This is difficult to control at home so it’s best to stick with the green ones. “California Ripe Olives” were heavily promoted in the marketing campaign and became favored for their blandness so that now we can’t do without them.
For more details on olive curing,go here for instructions from the University of California. Check out the photos of olives I cured recently.