How To Cure Olives

I adore olives. So much so that I’ve planted three trees – Arbequina, Leccino, and a new cultivar called Universal out of the breeding program in Yalta, acquired via One Green World.

Side note: you know how OSU does research programs on various genera to test things like cold hardiness and drought tolerance? Well, they’re about to embark on some trials of olives which I hope will be enlightening and will help to further the industry here. Check out this interesting article in Olive Oil Times from May of 2019. And here’s a link to the Olea Project!

Ok now back to the business at hand. Portland is a reasonably decent climate for olives; there will be variation from year to year but for the last three years, I have managed to successfully cure olives harvested here in the Rose City.

Thanks to this guide from Nichols Garden Nursery, I have a method which I will detail for you in this post.

Step 1: Harvest

In the Northwest anyway, olives are ready for harvest around November. They can, and sometimes do, stay on the trees for longer, but you’ll be battling bird predation (starlings, mostly) as well as the elements, and you want to get them nice and fresh.

Last year I went down to Arizona and visited Queen Creek Olive Mill, where I took the “Olive 101” educational tour and learned quite a lot about how olives are harvested and what difference it makes if they are green vs purple vs black. Basically, it comes down to flavor in oil production, but for our purposes, with salt brining, you can mix them all together regardless of what color they are at harvest and they will all be lovely.

So, pick your olives before the starlings get them and before they fall off the tree.

Just harvested, November 28, 2018. Frantoio variety.
Just harvested, November 29, 2019, unknown variety. Note much more green! This doesn’t matter for salt brining.

Step 2: Water Bath ~ 10 days

Ultimately with salt brining, you’re immersing olives in salted water. But before we do that, we need to soak them in plain water for several days to soften them and reduce their inherent bitterness.

Wash your harvested olives well, and then put them in plain tap water in a suitable container. You will need to change this water (and rinse them) daily for a few to several days. Nichols Garden Nursery’s document linked above says that this should be a 10-day process; I can tell you from my own experience that sometimes, you need fewer days.

What you’re after is for the olives to achieve a softness and a slight darkening in color over the course of their water bath. You’re leaching bitterness, basically. Some factors might contribute to a lessening of the number of days: if the olives are wrinkled from summer/fall drought when you harvest them, they’ll need about half the number of days (so, like 5 instead of 10). If they are harvested later in the season, I’d say that the weather and elements will help with the process of leaching, so if you harvest in late December, figure on a few days less. If you harvest in January, or even February, or later still, cut back the number of days by 2-3 days per month. If you harvest really late, like, April or May, you may not need to leach at all! You gotta play this part by ear a little bit. Or rather, by feel. You’re looking for a softening of the fruit and a color change from bright green to a dull “olive” green.

Here’s what they should look like after soaking in water for 24 hours:

Olives get this foamy stuff on the top of the water after soaking for a day.

So what I do when I rinse them each day is I clean out the sink and set up a big colander:

Then pour them into the colander:

Then rinse with water, and pour them back into the container I’m using to soak them, and refill with fresh tap water.

Step 3: Soak in Salt Water – 4 weeks

When the olives have soaked in the plain water enough, it’s time to transition to salt water. Look at the color difference between these, and the pics above – see how these are much more dull and the above pics the green ones are still really vibrant? Dull = ready for salt. You’ll feel this too – they get a little more soft.

The salt water solution is 1 cup salt (I use either kosher salt or canning/pickling salt; shoot for non-iodized salt) to 1 gallon water. Cold water should absorb that much salt easily.

Then when you put the olives into the salt water, some will float. Don’t worry.

Here’s a comparison shot of what this new batch looks like, having just put them into salt water, vs last year’s cured olives that I still have a few of (in the bowl in front)

Right about the same color! This is how you know it’s time to get them into the brine.

Ok now you’re going to change this salt water once weekly for 4 weeks. Does that mean three changes? Or 4 changes? Again, I want you to feel this out. I would say it’s 3 changes but you can do 4 if you want. It won’t hurt them, and it probably won’t make them overly salty.

What I do at this point is put a date on them, so I know when to change the salt water and when I should consider them done.

The ones in the steel stockpot are still in plain water, but the ones in the plastic container have transitioned to salt already.

Step 4: Transfer to 1/2 strength brine and store

At the end of the 4 weeks of full-strength salt water, now you will put them into a half-strength saltwater solution. 1/2 cup salt to 1 gallon water. In this solution, you can store them on the shelf, or in the fridge if you prefer, I find it makes no difference.

The flavor will improve over time and in a few months, you may notice a mild but delightful smoky flavor from your brined olives. I have noticed this particularly with Arbequina but it has also happened over a longer period of time with Frantoio, which generally seems to have larger fruit. So it might be a variety thing, but I think it’s more likely that the larger fruit size makes it take longer for that delectable smoky flavor to develop.

Ok, that’s all for now! Ask me questions if you have em, in the comments.

Wednesday Vignette: New tree!

It looks flippin awful right now but just you wait.  There’s so much going on here – hoop house is up with tomatoes NOT in it (what? I don’t know, I don’t work here), there’s fencing and other crap all over the place to keep birds and dog out of the garlic, there’s a big ol’ feverfew that I’m going to put in the ground (it volunteered in that pot and went crazy), grapes that need to be pruned (in the big pots) and of course the big obvious red highlighter mark which is the hopeful eventual outline of a Eucalyptus parvula.

For a long time I’ve been wanting an evergreen tree on my side of the fence right there in between those two Styrax japonicas on the other side.  I’ve considered oak, Arbutus (unedo?), cypress, and various others until it finally occurred to me that (I think) Eucalyptus feels right.  So then it became a matter of selecting the species.  As luck would have it I had a conversation about this with Paul Bonine of Xera Plants while in the car, and not only does he have a lot of experience in growing Eucalyptus, he also knows where they all are around town.  So he took me on a little tour and showed me E. kybeanensis, E. parvula, and several others.  E. parvula won the race handily once I saw the gorgeous one on N. Delaware Avenue just south of Sumner.  Street view here.

Yet another stroke of luck – another friend just happened to have a little E. parvula and he gave it to me.  EEEEEEE!!!

Lastly, If I say it out loud do I HAVE to follow through? I think I’m gonna take out the raspberries.  They are thirsty, hard to harvest, and I have those damn spotted wing drosophila.  Relatively new arrivals to the area, these assholes are responsible for significant impacts to commercial fruit growers.  They are damnear impossible to control and I just don’t think it’s worth it.  I’m halfway though an experiment to see if allowing chickens to forage under and around the plants will reduce populations or eliminate them (adults overwinter in/on ground) so I’m going to see that out but even if it’s successful, I’m still not all that keen on growing these.   Maybe olives…

Wednesday Vignettes come to us from the genius of Anna at Flutter & Hum, so go check her blog out too.

Cousin Itt

I have two specimen trees that were planted right about when my house was built (1968).  They’re in absolutely primo spots in the front yard, visible to all, seen and felt multiple times daily by us and everyone who drives by.  They influence my gardening decisions and options very heavily in the front yard.  They are a Cornus florida (probably) ‘Cherokee Chief’ and Acer palmatum (probably) ‘Red Dragon’.

Unfortunately, I am not in love with either one of them.  But what I AM in love with is a challenge.  So rather than removing them, I’m determined to work with them.

In painting class you never start with a full palette.  That would be overwhelming to the first-year student.  No, you start with black and white and then introduce one color (usually something like yellow ochre or burnt sienna), and then gradually expand the palette until you have fluency with a full palette.  Some painters, myself included, actually prefer a limited palette, though the colors themselves may change from one painting to the next.

The Japanese maple especially is exactly this kind of limitation. It’s dark red. It wants to be a blob.  I call it “Cousin Itt” and you should have seen it when I first got here.  It was a horribly tangled mass of dead sticks and hair (those little leaves and twigs that sprout right out of branches – I call that “hair”).  I have been pruning away at this plant for three years now, and today I went at it again.  This post documents a more or less typical pruning experience for me most of the time.  It happens three or four times a year.

Japanese Maple Pruning Sensei says “a bird should be able to fly through it.”

Uhh, nerp.  This is what it looked like when we first moved in, September 2014. The dogwood is visible up and to the right.

Cousin Itt. The gumdrop. Blob.

By the way, I did not crop that photo on purpose, because I also wanted you to see the enormity of ridiculous dormant grass, which is no longer (keep scrolling/reading, we’ll get to that too).

Here it is from the other side in April of 2015, after I’d attacked it a couple of times.  It’s kinda better.  My goal with this plant is to encourage asymmetry, establish and maintain multiple tiers, prevent hair, and somehow make it likeable to prevent David from attacking it with a chainsaw (he hated it initially but I think he’s okay with it now).

 

Hair prevention is easy: I just rip them off.  The establishment of tiers is more tricky.  One thing about this maple is that because of decades of no pruning or bad pruning, almost all of its interior branches are overlapping and touching and have become grafted together.  This makes larger pruning cuts a bit of a challenge.  I have certainly made mistakes.

Here it is this morning. You can’t see the branch structure because of all the hair. A bird cannot fly through this. Not even a hummingbird!

 

So the first thing to do is just pull all these little twigs and leafies that are sprouting from larger interior branches.  I keep my pruners in my pocket but mostly I don’t need to use them.

Before (well actually, I had made a few edits already):

 

After, although this is a different angle.  Thanks Mr. Sun for the nice lighting effects!

 

For the tiers, since I’ve already decided where the tiers are (that got established the first time I pruned it, more or less), all I need to do is identify individual branches/shoots that originate in any given tier and descend down past their tier into the next one, and prune or remove them.  Or if it’s a lowest tier, those that touch the ground get pruned.  Depending on what’s going on, I might prune it part way or all the way.

The other thing these maples do is what I think of as “redundancy.” That’s when, say, it already has what I think is an adequate amount of growth in an area, and then it makes three new branchlets right in the same area, often going the same direction, right on top or underneath what’s already there.  In these situations I prune pretty carefully because hey! the new stuff might actually be more desirable than the original stuff.

Just like in painting you have to step back and look at your work from a distance, and frequently.  Nevermind the maple for a sec, just check out my neighbor’s Liriodendron! I like how the dogwood looks in front of it.  Fall colors have been spectacular this year, haven’t they?

Oh look, right at the bottom of this picture just to the right of the dogwood’s trunk you can *just* see the top of a little Cupressus glabra ‘Sulphurea’ I recently picked up from Xera Plants which is a very dangerously short drive from me.  I’ve been looking for something with either chartreuse or silver/blue foliage to plant right next to this maple and sort of mess with it a little, break it out of its blobbiness.  This awesome cypress has both of those colors! I don’t know if this plan will work, or it’ll just make it harder to prune the maple, but I’m gonna try it.

Ok here we go, I think I am done:

A pruned maple and end-of-season pepper mess

See all the other plants in pots? Not counting the gerberas down in front (they always live in pots), there are actually 8 in this photo, all of which will go in the ground this week.  That’s about 1/4 of the total I have collected in the last couple months – and that is what I mean by a dangerously short drive.  And now you also see what the grass has been replaced with, at least currently.  There are two rectangular 4 x 10′ beds here that I use for vegetables.  The bed to the left of the maple (we are looking east here) is the sunniest spot on the property so it’s really great for peppers and eggplants although I might do watermelon here next year, because it’s pretty.  And silvery.

And just so you don’t have to scroll back up:

 

I think it’s getting there.  The branch structure isn’t great on this one, but all of that was before my time.  I like thinking of this as an ongoing sculpture collaboration with the tree.  And I think a sparrow could certainly get through there.