Last week, auspiciously, on the first day of real frost, we began picking the olives at the home ranch in the Anderson Valley. A crew of eight or ten arrived promptly at 7:00AM, meeting my partner with the trailer and the big wooden bins. The grass crunches under our feet as we proceed to the upper field. Most of the heavily-laden trees are in the lower field, but less exposed to the shriveling frost. The cold temperatures do little to the trees themselves, but the fruit is another story entirely. If a ripe olive freezes through, the outer skin puckers and it appears dried and wrinkled. With its higher oil content, the pulp remains reasonably intact within the skin, with no degradation to the flavor of the oil. Unfortunately, this season’s unpredictable weather patterns means that much of the fruit is still green, higher in water than oil, and susceptible to frost damage. It will be critical to get all of the fruit off of the exposed trees as quickly as possible. The pickers take on the small trees in pairs, the foggy clouds of their breath echo with sounds of laughter and the field blend of English and Spanish often heard in the vineyard.
The sun begins to warm our hands around ten, but we do not finish this field until the midday break. Hand picking is laborious work, and we move to the south field after lunch. Many of the Mission olives are already showing the discolorations from the frost, and we move quickly, using small plastic rakes and tarps to strip the more heavily laden trees of their fruit. The first of the 1100 pound bins fills; all shapes and sizes of fruit, the colors ranging from bright lime green to dark winy purple to almost black. We end the day around five, with a round of sodas, chips, salsa and chicharrones, pork rinds deep fried in their own lard, a by-product of the rendering process and a favorite snack of the crew.
The picking resumes the next morning, and, luckily, the temperature is about five degrees warmer, just enough, according to my partner, to keep the remainder of the green olives from spoiling before they are pressed. He and I take on all of the small trees, carefully stripping them of all their fruit. By early afternoon, all of the fruit is in, and we have almost filled two of the four large bins. The crew departs, delighted to be finished early, as many of them are preparing to travel south to Mexico for their annual family holiday visits. My partner and I caravan over the mountain to the press, and the second part of the annual process.
As it was last year, the press building is bone-chilling cold, the late afternoon sun already behind the ridge. We have almost a ton of olives, and they are weighed, washed, and carried up the conveyor to the press. As if my magic, a few hours later, the brilliant green stream of oil begins to dribble from the final separator. We place a plastic cup under it, and then stand in a circle, sipping the pungent new oil. The predominant flavors are those of leaves and grass, with a strong, underlying bitterness. There is little evidence of fruitiness, and we will have to once again blend this oil with those of other producers in warmer climates, where the olives ripen more fully. As we prepare to part ways, the big drum of oil is loaded on my partner’s truck, the bins are strapped down tightly to the trailer, and he begins the long drive back to his ranch in the Sierra foothills. I securely belt down my gallon bottle of the new oil for the trip back to the coast, and for another year, this ancient process is completed. The annual cycle of the farm comes to a close as the crop is gathered in. The short days herald the season of dormancy for the trees, and I head home to a warm fire and a bowl of winter vegetable soup, drizzled with the new oil.
Zuppa Frantoiana (Tuscan Olive Mill Soup)
- 1 ½ cup dried shell beans, soaked overnight (cranberrybeans are traditional)
- 1 medium carrot, cut in chunks
- 1 medium yellow onion, sliced
- 1 stalk celery, cut in chunks
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1 bunch cavolo nero (lacinato or dinosaur kale)
- 1 medium yellow potato, peeled and cubed
- 1 winter squash of pumpkin, peeled and cubed
- 1 medium carrot, cut in large cubes
- ½ teaspoon crushed fennel seed and/or fennel pollen
- 6-8 slices rustic bread
- 1 large clove garlic, peeled and cut in half
- New olive oil (olio nuovo)
Drain the beans and place them in your soup pot with about 3 cups water to cover, the first carrot, onion and celery. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, covered; at a bare simmer until the beans are tender (you can use a crock pot for this step). The time will depend on age and size of the beans, but will be around one hour.
Once the beans are tender, remove and set aside about ½ cups of the whole beans. Put the remaining beans and vegetables, together with any cooking liquid, through your food mill and return to the rinsed-out pot. Taste and add salt and pepper if desired.
In a saucepan, gently sauté the chopped garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil; when the garlic is softened but not browned, add to the pureed beans, along with the oil in the pan. Strip the tough center ribs from the kale, and coarsely chop the leaves. Add the kale, cubed potato, squash or pumpkin, and second carrot to the pot. Again bring to a simmer, and cook gently, covered, until the vegetables are tender, then stir in the fennel seed and/or pollen, the reserved whole beans, and additional salt and pepper if you wish.
Toast the bread slices, and rub with the cut garlic. When ready to serve, drizzle a liberal splash of new oil over the one side of each bread slice, and place in the bottom of your individual soup plates. Spoon the hot soup over the bread, and add another dollop of new oil to the center of each serving without stirring it in. Serve immediately.