Edible Monterey Bay

THE PRESERVATIONIST: FORAGING AND CURING OLIVES

A bother is transformed into a delicious
gift and a connection to a new community

foragingOlives

By Jordan Champagne
Photography by Margaux Gibbons

Life was truly carefree. I was living in a tipi on the edge of a farm field two miles down a dirt road. The sky was clear blue, and the oakdotted hills were a beautiful gold. I had just returned to California with my boyfriend to work on some farms for the summer. We did not realize at the time how deep the roots we were planting were going to grow, as this was before we were married, had children and started a local business.

I delivered CSA shares for Mariquita Farm while Todd drove up to San Francisco to work the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market for the same farm. We also worked markets for Happy Boy Farms, and one day a week I bunched flowers for Blue Heron Farm. Everything about that lifestyle was new, yet it all felt very natural to us.

The nearest town to our tipi was the historic San Juan Bautista. We went there for the library, to buy provisions, visit the mission and go to the bank.

There wasn’t much of a social scene there as we were the only people of our age group in town who were not married or did not have children. So we made friends with everyone we interacted with to fill the void.

That summer our food preservation light went on—and it has never gone off. We preserved everything we could get our hands on. It was a fun, wild adventure of experimentation and a dawning of what would become the focus of our careers. We would stay up late and wake up early to have time for all of our experiments. One of my favorites of that summer was roasting sweet peppers on our open-pit fire and then preserving them. You could taste our lifestyle in those peppers as the open fire was what we cooked on most nights.

As the chill of autumn was arriving, we noticed something different at the local bank. There were stains covering the sidewalk leading up to the front doors, and new rugs had been placed outside and inside of the entrance to keep the mess outside the building. I looked up into the trees and saw the origin of these stains. Those in front of the bank were mission olive trees, of which San Juan Bautista has many. They have beautiful silvery foliage year round. But in the autumn they can be come quite a bother for those who do not know what to do with them. I immediately asked the bank employees if we could pick the olives to cure. They were delighted that someone would actually do something with the fallen fruit.

Todd and I spent the entire afternoon with tarps and ladders harvesting the olives outside of the bank. It was almost as if we were doing some sort of public exhibition about food preservation. As a result, soon everyone in town knew who we were and what we were all about. It was a great way to get to know the community and start a solid relationship with our bank, which later gave us our first business loan and bought many gift baskets from us for their holiday gifts.

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Legend has it that some of the olive trees around town were part of the originals that Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen planted when he first arrived in the late 1700s. He brought the seeds with him and planted them immediately. Olives and their oil were a big part of mission life used for cooking, religious rituals and trading. These days the olives simply litter the ground as their processing has become a distant memory. We can really tap into a different time in the same place when we harvest olives from these historic trees. We discovered a simple way to preserve olives that seems to never fail and creates the most delicious olives. Most of my favorite ways of preserving food involve a lot of tender loving neglect, and this process is an example. (See recipe online at www.ediblemonterey bay.com.)

Since discovering those first trees outside of our bank, we have harvested olives throughout San Juan Bautista, including down by the mission, right on the fault line and even in the cemetery. We usually cure about 30 pounds of the olives each year to share with our friends and family and enjoy all year long. We have met other people harvesting alongside us, and we always feel a deep connection with them, being in on the big secret that these tiny berries are not just a nuisance but are a nurturing treat to be enjoyed throughout the year.

Jordan Champagne is the co-owner and founder of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. She has a passion for preserving the local, organic harvest and loves sharing her secrets at the workshops she teaches across the region.

EXPLORE: If you’d like to pick and cure your own olives, Dos Aguilas Olive Oil (www.dosaguilasoliveoil.com) in Aptos welcomes the public to U-picks in its groves every Saturday morning beginning in October from 8–11:30am. The ranch also offers olive curing classes afterwards, from 11:30am– 12:30pm. Rain cancels the U-picks but does not affect the curing classes, which cost $15 and include 1 pound of olives.

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