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The Olivesmith at Olive Time

September 09, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

Last Spring, while I was visiting a friend in Sonoma, she put out an assortment of olives unlike any I'd had before: Some were black and chewy and scented with orange peel and fennel; others, plump and purple, were hot and garlicky.

My friend told me she'd won these olives in a bet. Her friend, Angelo Garro, thought there was no way Bill Clinton would win the election; she thought there was no way Clinton would lose. She, of course, was right, and a few days after the election, a heavy box arrived in the mail, a box well worth gloating over: two large jars of Garro's home-cured olives.

Three weeks from now, Angelo Garro, an ironsmith in San Francisco, will drive out to Sonoma to pick green olives from a friend's trees. He will crack each olive with a river stone and put them all to soak in a tub of water. Four weeks later, he will take the olives out of the water, mix them with mint and garlic, olive oil and vinegar, and put them into jars.

These green olives will cure quickly--for olives--but they have no real shelf life and must be eaten right away, within a few weeks. No matter, this first batch of olives is only a prelude to what Garro calls the "Olive Time." Garro cures these green olives early, specifically to feed and inspire the more than 30 people who will show up at his forge in late October to pick, sort, prepare and cure hundreds of pounds of olives.

Garro is from Sicily; his father, a merchant, dealt in lemons, oranges and, on a smaller scale, in olives, which he supplied to delicacy stores. The recipes Garro uses come from his grandmother, who not only cured olives for her family every year but pressed olive oil and, with neighbors, made olive oil soap.

"I not only ate olive oil, I bathed with it," says Garro. "And from that, my skin has always been good--I never suffered from acne."

Garro moved first to Toronto, then to California. "You come from Italy, you start to replicate the life you left behind. Since I don't have a lot of family here, I try to get some tradition going with friends. Every year, we go mushrooming. In the fall, we go eeling for the monkey-faced eel and have a big barbecue. And every October, I invite all my close friends to make olives. Some are writers, some are cooks, but all of them love food and love to be happy around food."

In theory, the olive pickers come on Saturday and the curers come on Sunday. "But everyone always comes both days!" Garro says, exasperated. "It's getting more and more popular as the years go by. Last time, I had 30 people each day."

On Saturday, the pickers drive out to the country. They will most likely pick the California Mission olive, which, says Garro, is good for curing but has too much water and acidity to produce a decent oil. He has also picked the Sevillano olive, another Spanish olive, which is big, like a plum, and best for water-curing. His favorite olive trees are in Cloverdale and belong to Virgil Antolini, an old Italian friend of his, who has four trees he brought from orchards in Italy. Most likely, the crew of pickers will end up in Sonoma, where another friend has a windbreak with more than 400 olive trees.

Pickers spread sheets out under the tree. Garro climbs a ladder and beats the branches with a hazelnut stick. Olives rain down. Some are still green, some are turning a mottled greenish red, and some are black, ripe. Whatever olives resist this treatment are picked by hand.

"We pick all day," Garro says. "There is always a fabulous potluck picnic with wine and olive dishes. And there is always time for a snooze under the trees."

On Sunday, everyone gathers at the forge to begin processing the olives. Because olives degrade quickly, it is critical to start the curing when they are absolutely fresh. Amid much socializing and hilarity, olives are sorted into pails by color.

"Everybody makes mistakes, throws the wrong olives in the wrong buckets and, believe me," Garro says with a laugh, "they are severely punished. We tell them they've lost a third of their share!"

The green olives are cured in water, the greenish-red olives are cured in brine, and the ripe black olives are cured in salt. Garro finds the conventional lye-cured California olives distasteful. "You can't taste the olives, you can only taste the lye," he says. The only virtue a lye-cured olive has, according to Garro, is its shelf life. "In 500 years, archeologists will find a can and say, 'Oh look! What well-preserved olives!' "

As Garro and his friends attest, home-curing olives involves considerable preparation. Black olives must be pierced with a fork. Green olives, as mentioned, must be cracked with a rock--"Go to the river," Garro advises on this point, "and get a beautiful stone--one you love the most, one that's hand-sized and comfortable."

After hours of sorting, cracking, piercing, packing olives into salt and putting olives in to soak, there's another feast of olive dishes--pizzas, pot roasts, rabbit, olive bread.

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