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.
Sunday night, everyone goes home. "But they all come back," says Garro, "five to six weeks later--with jars. They want olives. They don't forget, either."
The last Olive Time, Garro and friends processed almost 600 pounds of olives.
"We make sure that all of us have olives," says Garro. "We missed the Olive Time one year and everyone was really sad. A year without olives is just not the same."
* After reading Angelo Garro's recipes, it's likely you'll start seeing olive trees everywhere--in your neighbor's back yard, along two-lane blacktops, in parks, along trails. Be sure and ask permission before you pick. Sometimes olives will even show up, fresh-picked and ripe, at a farmers market. Expect them mid- to late October.
* WATER-CURED OLIVES
Take 2 1/2 gallons of beautiful, absolutely fresh, crunchy green olives. Crack each olive with a stone. Put them in a 5-gallon plastic container and cover thoroughly with water. Put a plate and a rock on top of them--otherwise the olives will float. Change the water every day. Don't feel too guilty if you miss a day here or there. After 3 1/2 to 4 weeks, taste the olives to see if all the bitterness has leached out. Dry olives overnight spread out on the top of a table, then put them in a big mixing bowl.
Chop 2 big bunches of mint. Peel and finely chop 2 heads of garlic. Mix this into the olives. Add 3 cups of extra-virgin olive oil, 1 cup of good wine vinegar and salt to taste. Leave the olives in the bowl and stir them every day for 3 to 4 days. Then, put them into jars and cover them thoroughly with olive oil. Store these olives in the refrigerator, but serve at room temperature. They should be eaten within 2 months.
* BRINE-CURED OLIVES
Take 2 1/2 gallons of fresh olives just as they're turning from green to red. Make a solution of salt water to cover--2 gallons of water per 1 pound of salt--in a crock. Or, you can put a raw egg (still in its shell) in a pail of water and add salt until the egg floats to the surface; then you'll have the right amount of salt. Make certain that the olives are completely submerged in this brine. Place a plate weighted with a rock on top to discourage them from floating.
Once the olives are in the brine, go out and pick the stems and branches of wild fennel. Chop the fennel and add to the brine.
After a month or so, when you have time, go to a farmers market and buy some good hot fresh peppers, red and green. Add 2 to 4 peppers per 5-gallon crock--10 if you really like heat.
After 2 months, add 10 heads of garlic, the individual cloves peeled.
After 4 months, change the water and taste the olives. If they are really bitter, reduce the salt amount by 1/3.
After 6 months, change the water again. This time, the water should be just a little bit salty, "palatably salty," Garro says. More salt will leach out of the olives themselves. Leave the olives in this brine to be consumed as you go along. These olives will last up to a year and a half.
Use 2 1/2 to 3 gallons fresh ripe black olives. Pierce each olive with a fork. In a Chinese laundry basket or any unvarnished cylindrical basket approximately 20 inches tall, make layers of rock salt and olives. Set the basket on a brick placed in a plastic tub, to catch the juice. Weight the olives with a plate and a big, heavy rock. Every 3 days, empty the olives out and, using the same salt and the same basket, repack them. You may need to add more salt from time to time. This is done so mold does not develop. After 3 to 4 weeks, when all the bitterness has leached out of them, wash the olives and dry them out very well.
In a large frying pan, mix 1 cup of oil, 2 tablespoons fennel seeds, 1 3/4 cup finely slivered orange peel, a few squeezes of orange juice, 3 to 4 tablespoons of wine vinegar and 2 to 3 heads of garlic, peeled and finely chopped. Add the olives and heat them up until you can hear the oil snapping. Stir for just a few minutes until everything is warmed and well coated. Empty the contents of the frying pan into a large ceramic crock, cover with olive oil and stir every 3 or 4 days. It's a good idea to keep these olives refrigerated, but be sure to serve at room temperature.