Monday, May 30, 2011

The olive harvest

We've never had a great deal of luck with olive trees. The very first one we planted, at least seventeen years ago, right at the beginning of living here, still survives, but has had a very chequered history over the years, producing one good crop years ago, one a much smaller crop a couple of years later, and then nothing for ages, getting setbacks from scale and drought and all sorts of things. Other olive trees have bitten the dust very early; only one other one has survived despite multiple plantings David's done over the years, and this year it's been joined by one further one which looks as though it might survive. The trouble is that though the climate's fine for it--cold winters but plenty of sunshine, and rain mostly in the winter and summer--the weather can be unpredictable in the Northern Tablelands, with freak frosts starting early and finishing late. But that's not the main trouble, it's the quality of the soil, at least outside the kitchen garden proper. Under a thin layer of topsoil, it's a mixture of large patches of impermeable, badly-drained clay--or rock! The kitchen garden is different, as not only was it a patch that had a bit more topsoil, but over the years David's built it up with plenty of compost, mulch, and horse and sheep manure into a rich deep matetial that now grows pretty much whatever he wants(although very deep-rooted things still have a bit of a struggle.) But in the orchard it's been a constant battle to keep the trees not only alive but doing anything other than grow sluggishly and produce lots of leaf but no fruit. This year's seen a real change, with lots of fruit appearing--and the olives have been no exception.

The first olive tree(a Verdale, incidentally) was planted on top of a sub-soil rocky ridge which is why it's managed to survive despite its many struggles; the second survives because it's over a drain, the third no doubt will for the same reason. Anyway, it's the first tree, the gnarly old survivor, that's done us proud this year again--though because there wasn't as much sun as usual this summer, because of the long periods of rainy and overcast weather we've had over months now, the cold weather--and the first of the big frosts--started early before the fruit had a change to completely ripen, so David had to pick them green and not black like last time. We love green olives too though, and these, succulent and fleshy though small are particularly delicious.

It's quite a palaver, the whole olive-preparation thing. I'd never really realised before we started doing it that you most certainly can't eat olives straight off the tree--they are very bitter, and that bitterness has to be extracted with a caustic soda solution(and then the olives are washed over and over very thoroughly for a week before putting them in brine.)We've got a fabulous book called Preserving the Italian Way, written and self-published by Italo-Australian writer Pietro Demaio--it's very highly recommended for all kinds of tips and recipes for doing everything from curing olives to making sausage and bottling artichokes etc--you can read about it and order it at It's also a lovely warm, individual sort of book with memoir and ancedote mixed in with the recipes. We used the methods described in that to cure the olives. (You do have to be pretty careful.)

Anyway, we've got a big bucketful of brined olives now and yesterday I began to bottle some of the harvest, taking some of the fruit out of the brine in which it's been sitting for over a week now and putting them in jars with olive oil, garlic, thyme, pepper and a little lemon peel. I want to try out other mixtures for others--maybe with chillis, for instance, or with balsamic vinegar, or with different herbs, or maybe some just dry-salted. Though I love green olives stuffed with anchovies, I don't think I'll try that with these--the olives are too small, the stone too tight in the centre of the flesh. But there's so many other ways to eat them--and so many aperitifs and entrees that they'll enliven for the next few months!

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