Scientific fact: As with peanuts and potato chips it’s impossible to eat one olive. Who can stop? Olives are seductive, sensuous, sexy, colorful, tasty, shriveled beyond their age and, for heaven’s sake, even healthy. Such a deal.
California has been way ahead of the New World olive curve thanks to King Carlos III of Spain, who ordered the Franciscan invasion, led by Father Junipero Serra, that gave birth to the missions and the olive groves planted among them. Cuttings from mission olive trees started the California olive industry, with commercial production beginning in the late 1800s. The first California olive oil was pressed at Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1803. Olives were considered such a necessary staple of the missionaries’ diet that they were not recorded as a trade crop for taxation by Spain.
The olive came to Sonoma around 1823 when the ubiquitous Father Altimira planted Mission Olive trees around the San Francisco Solano de Sonoma mission. Gen. Vallejo followed suit, ringing his home with the trees and—just like that—Sonoma was (briefly) the Bear Flag and olive capital of a new nation.
To pick the first olives and make the first olive oil, the “benevolent” missionaries forced American Indians to climb ladders made of tree branches. From their teetery perches, they then beat olives off the trees with branches and gathered them from the ground or in buckets tied to their backs.
Mission Olive oil was used for blessings, cooking, lighting, soap, spinning, greasing machinery wheels, and—because of high amounts of Vitamins A, E, and C—for healing burns, cuts and other skin irritations.
Today Sonoma Valley’s second major crop is olives, some grown in massive groves, others in front and backyards throughout the Valley’s hillside ranches and downtown neighborhoods. Some residents pool their small pickings and take them to The Olive Press to make a unique community olive oil. And olive passionista Don Landis gives several popular seminars around Sonoma Valley on how to cure olives at home.
From December through February the entire Sonoma Valley celebrates Olive Season with olive-centric events, while restaurants, groceries, bakeries and wineries offer special menus and olive-inclusive goodies.
Signature events of the three-month festival include:
Martini Madness Sonoma’s finest bartenders concoct outrageous and delicious martinis with only one rule: They must include an olive. Clever concoctions have included an olive dipped in chocolate, an olive inhaler or atomizer, and an olive tapenade on a piece of toast balanced across the rim of a glass. Gin, vodka, and even Guiness stout and fruit-based whiskeys have found their way into tumblers.
Saddles Restaurant at MacArthur Place Inn & Spa on January 7, 2011. 5 to 7 p.m. 29 E. MacArthur, Sonoma. macarthurplace.com.
Feast of the Olive Dinner A true olive-centric feast and gourmet dinner prepared cooperatively by Sonoma’s top chefs at Ramekins Culinary School, Inn & Events Center, the Feast of the Olive sells out well in advance. Olives show up in everything and guests go home with a bottle of olive oil.
January 22, 2011. olivefestival.com.
VinOlivo Season of the Olive culminates on Presidents’ Day weekend, first with VinOlivo, a fabulous olive orgy presented by the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance and featuring food and wine from many of the Valley’s top restaurants, caterers and wineries. Guests load their plates in the big white tent at The Lodge at Sonoma where they also find an olive bar, olive oil tastes, and port and chocolate tastings.
February 18, 2011. 7 to 10 p.m. sonomavalleywine.com.
Community Press Day at The Olive Press is December 12. The press, with olive oil queen Deborah Rogers often in attendance, offers tours and tastings throughout December, January and February.
24724 Arnold Dr., Sonoma. Schedule your tour at 707. 939.8900.
B.R. Cohn Winery, home of B.R. Cohn’s olive oil and the estate of Doobie Brothers manager Bruce Cohn, hosts samplings of his estate olive oil from rare Picholine olive trees planted in the1870s, along with vinegar and wine tasting throughout December, January and February.
15000 Highway 12, Glen Ellen 707.938-4064. brcohn.com.
You can learn about and purchase Mission Olive trees at San Francisco Solano de Sonoma Mission, or at the home of Gen. Mariano Vallejo, throughout the festival. You can even take a tree home and plant a living piece of history.
Figone of California offers artisan olive and olive oil tastings, along with lots of education, at his Kenwood tasting room (property owned by comedian Tommy Smothers) throughout December, January and February.
9580 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
707. 282-9092. figoneoliveoil.com.
We already know, even if we are not sure why, that olive oil is good for us, and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO in the trade) is even better. We are talking degrees of virginity, here, and it’s important to remember that olives and olive oil (like women) cannot be re-virginated. Since the olives we eat have not been pressed into service for oil, are they pre-virgins? Many edible olives are dressed up and preserved, some to the point of wrinkling and wearing pretty colors.
Actually, olives right off the tree are such natural virgins that they should not be tasted or eaten as they might lead to a bitter experience.
Once they are cured—and there are many chemical and nonchemical ways to cure olives—a small olive contains only 4 calories, while a giant one may have 9. Ten medium black olives together have 42 calories, 10 green olives 49, and 10 stuffed green olives 51, somewhat depending upon the stuffing itself. One Greek olive may contain 16 calories, while a tablespoon of olive oil can have 119.
If salt content is important to you, check olive jar or can labels, cure your own, or accept olive gifts from friends who cure theirs. It’s always best to be able to chat with food sources, if possible.
Behind the claims, here are some facts:
Olive oil comes from olives, or it’s supposed to. Some off-brands add other oils, so read labels carefully, including oils from a variety of countries.
Olive milling, to produce olive oil, protects and preserves the vitamins, smell, taste and healthy properties of the original olives.
Olives and olive oil are loaded with monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants, which may help control “bad” LDL cholesterol and heart disease.
Spanish researchers (Spain produces olive oil) suggest that olive oil can help prevent colon cancer.
Because it is less processed, extra virgin olive oil contains more antioxidants, like Vitamin E and phenols, than other olive oils.
extra virgin: so-called best, least processed oil from first pressing of olives.
virgin: usually from the second processing, so again we are considering levels of virginity here.
pure: after processing, pure oil also goes through filtering and refining, but is no longer a virgin.
extra light: lots of processing, mild olive oil flavor, it may contain added oils.
Published Sonoma Magazine