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The Great Olive Gizmo

September 09, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

When my parents retired 17 years ago, they moved to Ojai where they built a home on about an acre and a half of hillside property. Some of the land was flat, some was quite steep, and all of it, when they first moved there, was nothing but dry weeds and dirt: a big blank page. My father, like nature, abhors a vacuum. He planted just about every inch of it.

He planted shade trees and ornamentals, grass and ground covers, berry patches and a vegetable garden. He planted an orchard with peaches, nectarines, loquats, apricots, pecans. He planted fig trees--way too many fig trees. And way too much Swiss chard. Around the house, he planted roses, shrubs, smaller citrus trees and grapes for the arbor he built. On the slopes above the house, he planted citrus: navel and Valencia oranges, Meyer lemons, grapefruit, tangelos and limes. Below the house, he planted avocado trees: Haas, Bacons, Fuertes. And along the lower driveway he planted two olive trees. My father wanted, he said, to harvest something every season of the year.

As it turned out, harvesting was the easy part, though only he was agile and nervy enough to traverse the narrow, precipitous footpaths he'd had cut into the hillsides. (Whenever I tried these paths, every step caused the hillside to slough away under my feet.)

Doing something with the harvest, however--before it rotted--became one of the biggest challenges of his retirement. Unlike nature, my father cannot bear to waste a thing.

He learned the processes of preserving: canning, freezing, drying. And luckily, not every tree or bush came to maturity at once. The avocados yielded slowly, a few fruit one year, a few more the next. Boysenberries and many of the orchard trees also took years to kick in. And it was six or seven years, I think, before my father began to be haunted by the number of olives--perfectly good, fresh olives--lying wantonly on the ground.

He searched cookbooks for olive-curing recipes, and found nothing. He asked friends, neighbors, the man who sold him the trees. He finally called the county agriculture people, who sent basic recipes for curing olives with salt or lye. The problem was, he couldn't find any equipment for home-curing olives. He had to wing it.

To cure olives correctly, you have to be a bit clever with contraptions, which my father is. He rigged his own gizmo with a crock, plywood, chunks of wood and a bucket of water. It works beautifully.

My father picks his olives when they're black and ripe in late October. He cures them for four to five weeks. The finished product, a Greek-style olive, is dark, black-purple, salty, meaty, slightly tough-skinned with a deep smokiness and a wallop of flavor.

When my father gives me a plastic carton of dried olives, I store them in the refrigerator, but I always have a few out marinating on the counter in olive oil, citrus peel and garlic. In a marinade, the olives plump up, lose some of their saltiness. The bitterness and perfume from the orange or lemon peel infuses the olives, and the result is a kind of dark, luscious Mediterranean bliss.

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TO CURE OLIVES

"Making olives," says my father, "is really very simple." Simple if, like him, you have a gift for contraptions. Here's his version of how it's done:

"I take a five-gallon crock. I need something to keep the olives off the bottom of the crock, so I cut a circular piece of plywood whose diameter is maybe an inch less than the diameter of the crock. I nail two chunks of wood, two-by-fours, to the plywood circle so that it now sits about five inches off the bottom. There will be maybe a gallon of juice down there by the time the olives are finished.

"I put a layer of salt on the plywood bottom. I use rock salt, but you could use any kind. I use a lot of salt, 10 to 20 pounds. On top of the salt, I put a layer of ripe olives. Then another layer of salt, another layer of olives, and so on until I'm pretty close to the top. Every olive should have as much contact with salt as possible.

"When the crock is fairly full, I take another circular piece of plywood--this one can be more closely fitted--and set it on top of the olives and weight it. The more weight, the better: I use a big plastic bucket filled with water.

"I start tasting the olives in about 30 days. I usually like them after about 35 days, five weeks.

"When the olives are ready, I take them out of the crock, rinse them, put them in a bucket of water and let them soak for a few minutes to leach out the excess salt. When I like the taste, I drain them, spread them out on paper towels on a table and let them dry. They'll dry in minutes if I turn a fan on them. Then I brush them with oil and store them loose in plastic tubs in the refrigerator. If they're left out, they'll generate mold. They may mold a bit anyway, and if they do, I rinse them under the tap and let them dry out again."

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