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California Nuns Have Struck Oil With Olives

Business: For decades, a shortage of workers meant the trees at the Bay Area's Mission San Jose went unharvested. Now a good Samaritan has stepped in.


FREMONT, Calif. — Glinting blue black in the pale afternoon sun, the olives of Mission San Jose hang plump and smooth against a wintry sky.

"See how much? Look above you --amazing!" exclaims Sister Jane Rudolph, her dark eyes sparkling. "I love it!"

For years, a labor shortage meant the fruit of these trees sprinkled across the neatly manicured lawns of the Dominican Sisters' convent fell to the ground neglected.

This fall, the sisters decided to strike the oil in their backyard and connect with a tradition that stretches back two centuries.

"The thing that is important to us is being stewards of the earth. We've been blessed, and now to use this historic resource--it's exciting," says Rudolph.

Nestled at the foot of winter-green hills about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco, the Dominican Sisters' 47-acre property has more than 200 trees, believed to have been planted by Franciscan missionaries two centuries ago.

For years, the olives were used to make oil that was used for sacramental purposes, as gifts to benefactors and for convent cooking.

But in 1964, the nuns could no longer handle the labor of harvesting, crushing and bottling the oil. They stopped production and gave their crushing machine to monks in Big Sur.

For a while the olives were mainly a nuisance, dropping onto parking lots, sticking to the tile and wood floors of the elegant, early 20th century convent, and blooming with flowers that played havoc with some of the sisters' allergies.

Then, in the late 1980s, there was a resurgence of interest in California olive oil, fueled by a new generation of gourmands hungry for fresh, local and unique products.

In 1996-1997 the harvest of California extra-virgin, the highest quality, olive oil was 123,000 gallons; by 1998-1999 it was 321,000. While California produces just 0.1% of the world's olive oil, the state's gourmet oils appear to be gaining popularity, with as many as 50 varieties in specialty food shops.

"We're where the California wine industry was in the late '60s, early '70s," says Patty Darragh of the California Olive Oil Council.

About three years ago the Dominican Sisters started thinking about reviving their grove and got a "wholeheartedly, 'Yes, let's go' " from leadership.

The project got a big boost when Modesto grower Dan Sciabica offered to crush the olives and bottle the oil for free. "We are wild with gratitude," says Rudolph.

Sciabica, whose family--the name is pronounced sha-BEE-ka--has been making olive oil for three generations, is happy to help. He's particularly pleased that oil proceeds have been earmarked for the care of elderly nuns.

"I'm a product of Catholic education," he said. "Now these sisters are getting older. They've given so much to us. It's time for us to give something back."

Since December, the nuns and a squadron of community volunteers have picked enough olives to yield about 100 gallons.

Rudolph was on hand to watch a batch of the olives being processed.

"It was like purple oatmeal. The aroma was wonderful," she said.

An enthusiastic saleswoman, Rudolph recommends mixing the mission product with a little balsamic vinegar and some fresh garlic and scooping it up with fresh bread.

But it will take some patience. The nuns don't plan to sell the olive oil until their annual fund-raising arts and crafts sale in November.

Sciabica expects interest to be high. The medium-fruity oil is "quite delicious," he says. "It's very vibrant and alive. It's not like eating something that's kind of sedate and dull."

If things go well--back in the '40s the sisters produced 400 gallons a year--they might consider expanding sales, but for now Rudolph is still working on things like pricing and profits.

"I have not set any goals. This is really an adventure," she says.

The next order of business is looking for ways to accomplish the essential but expensive business of pruning.

Although they're hardly a threat to commercial growers, the nuns do have a secret weapon in their business plan--each sister has adopted a tree and is praying for it.

"It was a fun thing to do," says Rudolph, who hopes the project, which has brought more than 300 volunteers to the convent, will dispel any lingering images of nuns as stern and remote.

Walking beneath the gray-green leaves of the convent's olive trees, Rudolph, wearing a brightly decorated sweatshirt over her habit to ward off the chill, is a far from forbidding figure.

"Look at that beautiful black. We've got to harvest," she says, pointing to the ripening olives overhead.

"Isn't this wonderful?"

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