From fuel to food, to how olive trees can live for thousands of years, and the farmer who changed the way we eat them, you’ll learn what that’s all about and so much more on the history of table olives!
Origin of Olives
Fossils from wild olive trees have been found around Italy and the Mediterranean, dating back over 20 million years. And around 100,000 years ago, olives were being used by humans in Africa, along the Atlantic coast of Morocco. But we really started cultivating them some 7,000 years ago, around the Mediterranean.
There olives began more as a source of fuel than food.
As far back as 3000 BC, olives were grown commercially on the island of Crete. In fact, grain, grapes, and olives were three main critical crops in Ancient Greece, and you should hella watch my video on the history of grapes!
Around the World
Aside from food and fuel, olives were also ceremonial. Ancient Olympic victors were crowned with olive branches, and they were even used as a goodwill gesture for diplomatic and trade missions. Hence, the whole extending an olive branch thing. Athletes even coated their bodies in olive oil before wrestling, which is not the least bit gay.
And if you’re the least bit thirsty, you should definitely check out some Turkish oil wrestling.
The olive tree also plays a key role in Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Like the dove that brought an olive branch back to Noah. Or with the Hanukkah miracle, where the menorah burned for eight nights.
California olives were first planted in San Diego at the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá around 1795. Also, San Diego means a whale’s vagina. And that is a lie…and you should totally watch Anchorman.
By the 19th century, olive production in the Golden State was artisanal, to say the least, with small orchards here and there. But all of that changed thanks to German immigrant and farmer Freda Ehmann, who developed a method for preserving olives that launched the state’s industry.
How Olives Got Their Name
The English word olive comes from the Latin word oliva. Oliva hails from the Pre-Roman word eleiva derived from the classic Greek word elaia. That word’s probably from the same Aegean language as the Armenian word for oil, which is ewi.
Olive Oil & Fuel
For many languages, the word for oil comes from the Greek version, elaion, which ain’t that different from their word for olive. That’s because until about the 1300s the word oil really meant olive oil. Olives were valued more as a fuel source than as a food.
Pressed for their oil, they were used in lamps, think Aladdin. Olive oil was highly valued and easy to transport, and became an important commodity traded across the Mediterranean.
Olive trees can grow up to 40 feet tall, live for thousands of years, and are related to other plants such as jasmine, privet, and lilac. Also, WTF is privet? They are the only tree in the Oleaceae family that produces edible fruit, so they are also overachievers.
And Olea Europaea is the main species of olive tree and includes 6 natural subspecies. This is the main species for commercial production. And if not obvious, the olive is the fruit of this small, shrub-like tree.
While there are thousands of cultivars, what is farmed where comes down to variety and region. Here in California, table olive growers prefer a combination of Manzanillo and Sevillano trees. Really, the Sevillanos trees serve as the pollinator, improving fruit yields.
Olives grown for olive oil tend to be Arbequina, Ascolano, and Mission olives. But Manzanillo and Sevillanos are also used.
The main nutritional benefit of eating olives is their vitamin E content. Olives and olive oil contain high concentrations of polyphenols, which seem to have a protective effect against the development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and other conditions.
Other Uses for OliveS
Outside of food, olive trees, olives, and their oil have many uses. The oil is also used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products. Olive oil has also been used as sunscreen. It has an SPF of about 8, so I suggest more modern options.
Trees are also harvested for furniture, and the branches for home decor. Olympians were crowned with olive branches, and they were even used as a goodwill gesture for diplomatic and trade missions.
Today, 80% of all harvested olives are pressed for oil, and the remaining 20% are consumed as table olives.
And 95% of all U.S.-grown olives come from California. We do grow over 50% of the nation’s produce, so #humblebrag and all that. Other U.S. growers included Texas, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Oregon, Alabama, and Hawaii.
Globally, olives are grown around the Mediterranean Basin and in Australia, New Zealand, both North and South America, and South Africa.
California Olive Production
Tulare County accounts for 56% of the Golden State’s production, where Sacramento, Glenn, Tehama, and Butte counties make up about 36%. The remaining 8% comes from Kings, Kern, Fresno, and Madera. There are thousands of olive cultivars, but here in California, table olive growers prefer Manzanillo and Sevillano trees. Olives grown for oil tend to be Arbequina, Ascolano, and Mission trees.
First Canned Olives
Today, olives are everywhere. But that was not always the case. It was quite difficult, for a long time, to successfully preserve olives for storage. Which also meant they could not be shipped easily. All of that changed thanks to German immigrant and farmer Freda Ehmann.
Freda came to California in 1892 when she purchased a small olive grove just outside Oroville, in the Sacramento Valley. Fun fact, I grew up around the city of Sacramento.
Working with a food scientist from the University of California, she experimented with different methods for pickling ripe olives. Assisted by Prof Eugene Hilgard, they found a formula in 1898 that worked. This formula put California on the map as a major olive producer. It allowed for olives to now be preserved in cans and shipped around without spoilage. The formula was not just a success, but it’s also still in use today.
Olives do not grow well in poorly-drained soils and those rich with the Verticillium wilt fungus. They can be grown in tough, marginal soils but do best in unstratified, fine soils that are at least 4 feet deep and have a moderate pH.
Too much rainfall or humidity can promote the growth of fungus and damage olive trees. Rain during the fall can help the fruit ripen, but if it happens too close to the harvest, it can interfere with mechanical harvesting equipment or the oil pressing process.
And while olive trees are drought tolerant, irrigation helps produce good harvests. Trees should have ample water during the bloom period to aid flower development.
Commercial olive trees are typically produced from rooted cuttings. While grafting is not uncommon, many growers simply stick to a single cultivar. However, sometimes other varieties are included to help improve yields.
Table olives are typically planted around 85 trees an acre for hand harvesting and pruning. Oil olive growers can plant up to 600 trees an acre, where mechanical pruning and harvesting are used.
It’s no surprise that olive trees do best in a Mediterranean climate. They like mild winters and as little freezing as possible. During the spring it’s helpful for the bloom period to have no cold spells. Long hot dry summers are preferred. Fall should be mild with minimal frosts so that fruit is not damaged.
Trees begin to fruit by year three and hit full production by year seven. And they are commercially productive for about 40 years.
Trees begin to bud immediately after harvest, around November. That’s why it requires skilled labor to do this job. Farmworkers must be careful not to harm the tree for next year’s harvest. Growing and developing occurs through the winter months until the flowers bloom in March.
The blooms begin to unfurl even more by June, making for easier pollination. The trees are typically pollinated by the wind, or it could be a self-pollinating tree. But remember the Sevillanos? Cross-pollination with a compatible variety can increase fruit yield up to 7% and even improve the overall olive.
For this reason, some growers plant a few alternative varieties in their orchard. And a single tree can produce around 1000 olives.
Within six weeks of full bloom, fruit begins to set. Olives grow over summer, first firm and green, slowly getting darker…and less firm. Let me explain…
Green, Semi-Ripe & Black Olives
As olives ripen on the tree, the skin can change from green to a darker color, then followed by the flesh darkening as well. For this reason, there are three categories of ripe table olives: Green, semi-ripe, and black.
Green olives, which is picked when the olive is at full size but … green. This is also when oil olives are picked.
Semi-ripe olives are picked when the skin has darkened, but the flesh of the olive has not.
Black olives are ripe and picked at full maturity, so both the skin and the flesh have ripened. The olives are purple, brown, or black in color.
Olives are harvested starting in September and through November, then rinse and repeat. For table olives, which are hand-harvested, they can’t be bruised or damaged, which is why this is skilled labor.
After being picked, olives must be cured, for they are too bitter, just like me. They are soaked in a lye solution for 7 days to remove the bitterness and then repeatedly rinsed. This is the same process invented by Freda Ehmann and is still in use today.
During curing, air can be added to affect the color. More air means more change, making green olives turn black. Olives are then canned or jarred in a light brine as they are low in acid.
And that’s how table olives got from the Mediterranean to California to you!
Sources: Olive Wikipedia Page, Cal Olive, Afar Vineyard Article, Atlas Big Olive Production Figures, UC Davis Olive Center, California Agriculture Q1 2011 , Freda Ehmann Wikipedia Page, Freda Ehmann Localwiki Bio, Olive Botulism Article, Edible Silicon Valley Winter 2016