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A mount of olives for Caltech fest

Students gather a ton of fruit from Pasadena campus' trees to press oil that will be sold as a fundraiser. Event began last year as a prank.

November 03, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

Caltech put aside astrophysics and supercomputer technology Friday for an earthier and more pungent obsession: harvesting from campus olive trees and turning the crop into golden oil.

Across the Pasadena school, students, faculty and staff climbed 16-foot-high ladders and rode a couple of cherry-pickers to grab the black and green fruit from about 70 trees and dump it into buckets.

What was billed as Caltech's first Olive Harvest Festival squeezed a healthy condiment from the landscape and provided a respite from the school's infamous academic pressure.

"It's not really just about the olives. It's about everyone working together," said freshman Tim Black, a math major from Wisconsin, who was in a crew using a ladder and rakes at one of the trees lining the lawn in front of Beckman Auditorium.

Festival organizers said they harvested about a ton of olives from the iconic trees, which are about 80 years old and 45 feet high. They anticipated a yield of 40 gallons to 50 gallons of oil -- enough to fill roughly 1,200 bottles of varying sizes. The oil will be sold at the campus bookstore to benefit scholarships, student activities and staff bonuses.

The festival, which attracted more than 500 pickers, grew out of a prank and a dare.

Last year, two Caltech undergraduates looking for some fun started to pick olives from the trees without formal permission. The school's new French-born president, Jean-Lou Chameau, spotted them and promised a home-cooked meal if they produced a batch of olive oil.

Biology major Ricky Jones and physics major Dvin Adalian took up the challenge with unusual methods. They used blenders, concrete blocks, window screens and a centrifuge to coax oil out of the hard fruit. Their unlikely success garnered national publicity and approval for Friday's campus-funded festival. Most of Friday's olive crop will be professionally pressed, purified and bottled by the Santa Barbara Olive Co. However, Jones, 22, and Adalian, 20, showed how far their own olive oil scheming had advanced.

The students designed and helped build a human-powered crusher that employs two large metal wheels -- each weighing a ton -- that roll over unpitted olives and turn them into a pulpy mass. After that, students wrap the olive mush in a cloth and place it inside an ingenious press, in which metal and plastic plates are screwed down tightly, squeezing the thick oil into a bin.

"We've scaled up, definitely upgraded," Adalian said of the new technology that produced about 2.5 liters of oil for tasting at a massive post-harvest dinner that featured a menu of paella, lamb, olive-flavored sorbet and olive oil cake.

Jones, who is applying to medical school, said he was very pleased that the crusher and press worked during public trial runs. "It was a day of testing and production all packed into one," said Jones, who promised to return to next year's festival as an alumnus.

Caltech President Chameau, who spent an hour picking olives Friday morning, said he was impressed by the young men's inventions and delighted with the festival, calling it "a good community-building event."

But he said he might not sample Jones' and Adalian's oil, produced without the highest standards of sanitation. "I may wait until we have the oil pressed by the professional. This one is still an experiment," Chameau said in front of the contraptions.

Until two years ago, Caltech regarded the olive trees as a beautiful nuisance. Gardeners sprayed them in an effort to retard fruit growth because dropped olives stained walkways and tripped pedestrians.

Now, the science and engineering school has so embraced the trees that more than 100 people entered contests to design labels for the oil bottles as well as festival T-shirts. Laptop computers went to the winners.

Santiago Lombeyda, a computer research scientist, designed the winning T-shirt, which showed olive tree branches reaching over the text "Caltech Olive Harvest 2007" in a computer font. He said his goal was a "cool juxtaposition" of Caltech's technical and natural sides.

Kate Craig, a senior majoring in applied physics and history, came up with the winning label for Caltech Olive Oil in her watercolor rendering of trees and campus architectural landmarks.

The competition included examples of Caltech humor: one showed an olive that looked like Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue and another featured olives in outer space orbits.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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