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California's Bitter Fruit: Olives : This is the olive that built an agricultural empire. Now the super-colossal California black ripe olive industry is in big trouble.

September 09, 1993|DANIEL P. PUZO

The world's largest olives grow in turn-of-the-century orchards bordering Northern California farm towns such as Oroville, Palermo and Richvale. An estimated 8,000 acres of Sevillano trees yield a variety that is marketed--in agricultural hyperbole--as "jumbo," "colossal" and even " super colossal."

Yet, rather than being a source of pride, an example of the state's farming preeminence, the stately trees represent one of the reasons that California's olive growers are in trouble on the eve of the 1993 harvest.

Marketing experts within the $200-million industry decided a few years ago that neither consumers nor chefs wanted large olives because they are perceived to be more costly. Today, processors are refusing to buy Sevillano olives from growers, and there are proposals to replant or graft over as much as 50% of the groves in favor of trees bearing smaller fruit.

"It's a sad thing removing these trees, some of which have been in the same family for two or three generations," says Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council of California in Visalia. "To put a chain saw to something that graceful, that is as old as 100 years, is a heart tugger."

The disarray in California, the nation's only olive-growing state, comes at a time when the rest of the world's producers revel in a decade-long resurgence.

The results are apparent in the marketplace: When Americans want olive oil they turn to Italy. When the nation's restaurants need martini olives, they get them from Spain. And when heightened interest in international cuisines increases demand for olives, U.S. consumers opt for the traditionally cured Mediterranean varieties from Greece or France.

On the eve of the 1993 California harvest, by contrast, the state's largest processor--the Lindsay Olive Growers Cooperative--is in bankruptcy liquidation, imports are taking a major share of the market, and there is a one-year surplus of domestic product in storage (normally, thereshould only be enough for a couple of months). Supermarket sales of table olives, another barometer of consumer interest, are flat for the third year in a row.

Many growers and processors put up a brave front, but some top industry executives privately wonder how long they can expect to survive when all they offer is the canned black ripe olive, a singular, overly familiar product ill-suited for today's multidimensional, demanding food environment.

"We have not done much as an industry that could be considered imaginative," says Tim Carter, chief executive officer for Bell-Carter Foods Inc., now, after Lindsay's bankruptcy, the state's largest olive processor. "We've got to look for new uses (for the olive)."

Any innovations in the state's olive industry come almost entirely from the small-scale, family firms willing to adopt traditional European curing methods and offer a wide range of olive products.

Meanwhile, the five major California processors continue to resist every significant trend involving their product--stubbornly continuing to produce the canned black ripe olive . . . an olive that is neither ripe nor black when harvested.

Picked green, the fruit is cured in a sodium bicarbonate solution that removes the bitterness but dilutes the fruit's flavor. Then air is pumped through the cure in order to oxidize the olives and force the uniform dark-brown color. The olives are rinsed repeatedly with water to remove the curing solution. The fruit is then chemically stabilized in order to keep its color from fading in the can. In a sense, the California black ripe olive is soul mate to the derided supermarket tomato that is picked green and gassed a reddish ripe.

"For years, farmers bred hogs with a lot of fat on them because they thought the consumer wanted a fatty meat," says David Daniels, manager of the California Olive Committee in Fresno. "Now, they have changed their product so that pork is actually lean; they bred a lot of the fat out of that animal. But they didn't do anything until consumers first started buying more chicken than pork. Pork producers had to make an adjustment . . . . And now we are going through our adjustment."

Europeans, on the other hand, use several ways of curing. Many, such as the Greek varieties, are harvested ripe and then pickled in brine or dry salt, creating their distinctive sharpness. According to Harold McGee, author of "On Food and Cooking" (Charles Scribner's Sons: 1984), others are then soaked in a lye solution and washed thoroughly to remove the "strong-tasting" flavor attributed to a natural olive component called oleuropein.

"The problem in a nutshell is that we have to persuade the larger processors to start getting away from the canned black ripe genre," says Craig Makela, founder and president of Santa Barbara Olive Co. Inc. "The industry is so entrenched that they are reluctant to take even the excess olives and do (something different). No one will take the lead."

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