Saturday, November 17, 2012

Livermore Community Olive Pressing at Olivina - 2012

I have to say, although my children don't know it yet, they get to live a pretty easy, if not a bit pedantic life.  There were no iPads or Apple TVs or DVRs or computer games when I was growing up. Heck!  We had a TV with about 10 channels on it, with some of them only coming in clearly occasionally.  If you wanted to see a show, you had to be there when it was on...or you just didn't see the show.

Tough luck for me...perhaps?

Back then, I remember going to visit family in Sicily...this was about 1977, when disco was king!  I was 12 years old then, and I remember flying on the plane with my Sicilian Grandparents.  Back then flying was a really big deal.  Nonna took me to the department store and bought me some new clothes to wear for the flight.  You always dressed up for a flight back then.  Everybody had a decent seat and everyone got a nice little travel bag for their flight from the travel agent, with the logo of the airline on it.  Mine was a cool bag with the Alitalia logo emblazoned on it in bright green.

I was stylin'!

I remember arriving in Sicily...Palermo to be exact, to the sight of tough looking Sicilian soldiers walking around the airport with full battle fatigues and machine guns.  They looked quite menacing to a 12 year old boy from Cleveland, Ohio.  Despite the fact that 1977 was one of the most violent years in Cleveland mob history, with news stories nearly every day about another car bombing taking place somewhere in Cleveland, I was a bit intimidated by the machine gun toting military men in this strange new land.

It only got more interesting, and intimidating in a different way, when we drove into Palermo.  There were all sorts of crazy people zipping around on their Vespa motorbikes, with little to no regard for any sort of traffic rules...and certainly not much care for pedestrians.  I remember my cousins telling me to be careful when going to the large open market because there were gangs of Vespa riding thugs that would zip by you and pull gold chains off of your neck or steal purses, pick pockets...and perform all sorts of thug-like activities.

I remember going to bed that first night feeling a bit homesick.  I didn't have my Etch-A-Sketch, nor my wrist radio, not any of the familiar trappings of my rather humble upbringing.  The next morning did not bring me much comfort either, since nobody in Sicily seemed to have any knowledge of packaged cereal and milk, opting instead for a bowl of hot milk and coffee with an assortment of bread products to dunk in the concoction.  I suddenly realized that I was going to live in this for the next two months of summer, while my brothers got to partake in Dairy Queen soft serve cones, Frosted Flakes, and machine-gun-free travel.

I sighed heavily as I watched my crusty bread pieces sink to the bottom of my breakfast bowl.

After a rather long and rather unsatisfying breakfast (I was just not ready for this change) we all piled into a FIAT that sounded like a sewing machine, and headed out for the long road trip to Lucca Sicula, the birth home of nearly my entire Sicilian family.  I remember noticing the loops of rigid rubberized plastic hanging from the edges of the car ceiling, and wondering what they were for.  As soon as we were out of the city, and on the rather narrow, winding, twisting country roads of the Sicilian countryside, I knew what they were for, as I watched all the passengers grab onto them and not let go for the next several hours, in order to prevent themselves from getting tossed about inside the tiny excuse for an automotive vehicle we were destined to live in for the better part of the afternoon.  The roads were rather treacherous, and there did not seem to be any signs anywhere, let alone lane markers and traffic lights.

As we moved further into the country we kept having to slow down (which Italians do by slamming on the brakes, further necessitating the passenger hand holds) as we came across bands of rather salty looking countrymen with their donkeys and mules towing parcels of harvested what not and large jugs of water from the many springs along the way...which were essentially pipes jammed into the side of a mountain, spewing forth crystal clear water.  The springs all had large catch basins that the mountain men would water their mules and donkeys with.  Occasionally we would see one of the rugged older mountain men stripped down to his waist and giving himself an impromptu bath while his livestock drank heartily.
A Donkey Resting By The Roadside
Despite throwing up a couple of times during this road trip, I was beginning to find it all quite fascinating.  The large and rugged mountains surrounded us, with the occasional house or religious institution of one sort or another majestically perched on the peaks of some of the mountains.  

The animals all seemed content and a part of this rather rural, agrarian lifestyle that my ancestors had lived in for as far back as anyone could remember.  Since I had spent nearly every summer growing up with my Sicilian Nonna, I spoke fluent Sicilian dialect, which allowed me to carry on a conversation as we moved further and further south, the scenery getting more beautiful with each passing kilometer.

The Beachside Town Of Siculiana 
When we finally arrived in Lucca Sicula, I was very worn out from the car trip, and suffering from jet lag.  We all decided to have a quick bite to eat, and then take a nap, which turned into an all night affair for me.  I awoke soon after sunrise and made my way down the ancient stone stair in the stone house (old houses are not made of wood in Italy) my mother, uncles, and grandparents had all grown up in.  It was a gorgeous July Summer morning, and I walked outside and made my way next door to my cousin Giuseppe's woodworking shop, where Peppino (as we all called him) greeted me warmly with a wood plane in his hand and an ever-present cigarette hanging from his jaw.  Alongside him stood his young apprentice Nino (short for Antonino), who politely smiled as he steadfastly held down the gorgeous wood door that Peppi (Giuseppe's even shorter nickname) was putting the finishing touches on.  I gazed at the woodworking shop in fascination, marveling at all the tools and random pieces of machinery that I had never had the opportunity to witness growing up.  Peppi gave me a block of wood wrapped in sandpaper and told me to sand the door while Nino held it down, occasionally blowing off cigarette ashes that landed on the wood as Peppino barked barely comprehensible Sicilian commands to his young apprentice, who seemed to find all Peppino said and did utterly charming (as did I).

We finished the door (or so I think we did), and Peppino decided it was a good time to head to the bar to get a "Tazzina d'caff√®" (or cup of coffee for the uninitiated) and a "Briocha con granita", which was an eggy bun split open and filled with sweet lemon ice (granita), made in house from the locally grown and plentiful lemons.  I was already liking this breakfast a lot better than my first one, and perhaps a bit more than the ones back home.  As it turned out, this was a fairly common early morning respite in Lucca Sicula, and I was all over that like white on risotto!

By this point, only about an hour or two into my new career as an adopted apprentice woodworker/lemon ice loving fool, Nino and I had become fast friends.  For the next several months we were always together doing something or other, and when I returned to Italy for my return visit...25 years later, Nino and I recognized each other in the town square of Lucca Sicula almost immediately.  He had grown up a lot, and had a gorgeous girlfriend named Paola, but he was still the same Nino I had in the town of about 1000 people where he had been born and raised.

Paola and Nino In Lucca Sicula

During the hottest part of the day, we worked in the wood shop, which was a good shelter from the scorching July Mediterranean sun.  As the afternoon waned on, we piled into another one of those ubiquitous little FIAT cars, and headed to what would end up being my favorite place of all...the campagnia.

My Cousin Salvatore (Totti) In His Campagnia

A campagnia is a special place for all Sicilian families.  Nearly everyone has at least one in their family, and they are passed down from generation to generation.  They are the family plantations, generally acres in size, where life sustaining food and livestock are grown and raised.   It was here that I first witnessed fresh figs, peaches, cactus pears, and plums growing profusely.  It was here that I tasted my first fresh, immature almond.

Cactus Pears and Fresh Figs

It was here that rows and rows of tomatoes, and coops of chickens and rabbits surrounded a small countryside home or shelter, with an outdoor stone oven for cooking in the countryside on hot summer nights.  After a late afternoon toiling in the campagnia, we would gather some ripe vegetables and take them back to the stone oven, where the Sicilian ladies of the family, young and old, had fired up the oven and were frantically kneading dough for stone oven cooked pizza and a delicious minestrone stew brimming with the flavors of the freshly picked squash, tomatoes, parsley, basil...and whatever else we could hold in our tired arms.  It was here that I first truly EXPERIENCED that food was a product of the Earth, and that food was something the entire family took part in not only creating, but cooking and enjoying together.  It was magical!

Top: Family At The Campagnia
Bottom: Family Bottling Tomato Sauce At The Campagnia

...and it was here that I saw my first olive tree...EVER!!!

When I first saw an olive tree, or rather the hundreds of olive trees in the campagnia, I naturally had to walk up to the tree and pick an olive to eat.  I mean, why not?  I absolutely LOVED (and still love) olives.  I reached up to a branch and picked a gorgeous green olive, and popped it in my mouth, biting into the crisp...and unbearably bitter...flesh.  Peppino and Nino both laughed at my hysterically as I spit out the vile tasting fruit, admonishing me for eating an un-prepared olive.  Peppi explained to me that they had to be soaked in water and salt to get rid of the bitterness for weeks before eating, and that most of these olives were going to be pressed into olive oil.

Peppino drove us to a large building strategically placed among the various family-owned campagnias, explaining to me that this was the community olive pressing mill, and that it was owned by everyone in the co-op, made up of olive growing families (which was essentially every family in Lucca Sicula).  He told me that in the fall, before the first freeze hits, the campagnia owners would harvest all their olives and bring them to the community mill, where they would be weighed and then piled all together for one huge community pool of olive oil.  The growers could then take home what they needed, based on what they contributed to the pool, and sell the rest to an olive oil broker, who would then sell it commercially far and wide (but mostly in Sicily, to be sure).

I thought this was supremely fascinating!  I am not sure why I did at the time, but it stuck with me for decades.  Every time I would eat olive oil I pictured hundreds of Sicilians, with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, hairy armpits, and baskets of olives being poured into a mill, while they watched their precious cargo being made into what was essentially the elixir of life for these rugged agrarians.  I remember going back there with my new bride, in 2002, and asking my cousins to take me to the mill, which was still there.  I longed for a day when I could witness the community milling first hand, and partake of the fruit of people!

It was this, and a request from my Nonna right before she died, that led me to plant two olive trees in my own yard in Northern California.  Nonna loved olives and olive oil dearly, and she wanted me to carry on the family tradition in America, and I felt this was an admirable thing to do.  As much as I longed for my own campagnia in Northern California, I soon realized that acres of land here cost as much as entire cities in Sicily, so I had to settle for my backyard, where I planted an almond tree (from a seed smuggled in my fanny pack from Sicily), figs, fennel, apricots, berries, herbs, lots of other edibles...and my two olive trees.

The trees were very small when I first got them.  One was a Leccino varietal, and one was a Frantoio varietal.  I was told these could pollinate each other, which was essential for fruit production.  I proudly planted them and watched them slowly take root and grow for several years, and after about the 3rd or fourth year I harvested the olives and decided to brine my own.  It was a very laborious process...not the small harvesting I did...but the brining of the olives.  It took weeks, and the olives were good, but just not worth the constant attention and daily ritual of rinsing and draining I had to go through for weeks in order to leech the bitterness out of the olives.  I tried a shortcut method of soaking them in lye to neutralize the bitterness, which did indeed work, but it left my olives tasting rather bland in comparison to the old-fashioned water method.  I did this one year only, and then decided to let the birds devour my crop of olives from that point forward, deciding that trips to the store olive bar were less time consuming and a great source of delicious (if not a bit costly) olives.

In the meantime I had visited many great farmer's markets throughout Northern California, and I had become a regular at my own local Livermore Farmer's Market, and had met (and eventually become well acquainted with) the Crohare family, who sold their locally grown and pressed Olivina brand California Extra Virgin Olive Oil to market visitors.  I can remember this being the first (of many to come) Certified California Extra Virgin olive oil I had ever tasted, and I immediately fell in love with the wonderfully fragrant, bright, peppery, and eminently fruity flavor.  It was from that moment forward that I vowed to make this locally produced olive oil a staple in my kitchen, and today it is the only olive oil I purchase (but not the only olive oil I consume...more on that later).

The Old Olivina Ranch Gateway - Now Part Of A Public Park and Vineyard Entrance

Eventually I made my way over to The Olivina, nestled among vineyards in the Livermore countryside, and wrote a story about this long-established Northern California producer of premium olive oil.  Charles Crohare Junior and Charles Crohare Senior both live there and run the orchard and in-house harvesting, milling, packaging, and shipping operation.  Both of the Charles' were very cordial, and loved to explain what they did and loved...which was anything to do with olive oil.  They had finished all milling at this point (it was early spring, and milling happens in the fall).  It was the following year, if I recall correctly, when Charles Jr. told me I could come by and watch the harvest and milling, if I promised to be careful.  Having been an chef at one point, I had learned how to behave around machinery in the food service industry, and Charles obviously knew that I would love to see it happen, and could be, hopefully, trusted around the process.

I remember going there my first time, and watching the olives get milled, then the oil being separated from the mashed olives, and finally emerging in a wonderful green and golden stream at the end of the process.

I tasted this freshly pressed olive oil and was immediately blown away by it.  I had never tasted anything that even remotely tasted like this.  It was unfiltered and unsettled olive oil, known as "Olio Nuovo" in Italy, which was still cloudy with microscopic particle of olive pulp, much like the pulp in freshly squeezed orange juice, but much smaller in size.  Like freshly squeezed orange juice, it had a remarkably bright, fragrant, and intensely fruity flavor, with loads of peppery pungency tickling the back of my throat as I savored this most prized of all olive oil products.  I just knew I had to have some of this, and convinced Charles to sell me a few bottles of this delicious treat, which he now sells for limited time through his website, for the short time it is available.  The intense fruity freshness dissipates after a month or two in the bottle, so getting this early is essential to maximum enjoyment.

I remember talking to Charles about the community milling they did in Sicily, and he told me that he did indeed mill olives for other local growers, for a modest fee, but had not yet done a community milling for small, personal growers (like me).  I really wanted my olives to be pressed into olive oil, and felt like a total heel for letting them turn into winter bird feed, but Charles told me that the minimum amount needed to run the press was around 500 lbs., which my two trees did not come close to producing.

...then one year, it happened.

I can't remember where I first heard it, but I found out that Olivina was going to have a community pressing for any and all growers to bring their olives to (no matter how big or small your crop), and for a modest fee, Olivina would throw all your olives together in a big community pile.  It was the end of the Indian Summer in Northern California, and I was staring at the absolute most gigantic crop of olives I had ever seen on my trees.  THEY WERE EVERYWHERE!  I marked the date off in my calendar (November 11, 2012), and waited anxiously for the day to come.  I was going to not only get to witness a community olive oil pressing, but was also going to partake in the entire process, from harvest to final product!

November 10th finally came around, and I gathered my reluctant family together to help harvest my olives.  The children were happily playing with their iPads and computer games, or otherwise being rather laid back and unproductive (which is fine with me most of the time), so I made them drop their electronics, grab a basket, and started picking and gathering olives.  First of all, I had to cut the massive branches off of the trees, which had now grown to about 20 feet in height, and then they all got down on their hands and knees and began gathering, sorting, and bagging olives.

You can be sure that I had to deal with a lot of moaning and wailing...for 8 hours.   Yes, it took us 8 hours to pick and sort them all (getting rid of the leaves and rotten or bug infested olives), and my hands were raw, and we were all exhausted.  Nonetheless, we all spent time together, as a family, partaking in a ritual my ancestors (and existing family in Sicily) had gone through many times before.  It was time to harvest the olives, and all hands were on it or not!

Sorted Olives

My Baby Girl Watching Over Community Olives
We ended up picking 116 lbs. of olives (although I swear it felt like 200 lbs. at least), leaving probably close to 40 lbs. behind because the sun was going down and it was getting cold outside.  We brought them to Olivina early the next morning, and were the first to arrive.  Charles Jr. and Sr. were both there to greet us, and they then carefully weighed our olives and dumped them in a bin with other Italian cultivars, because they wanted to keep the various cultivars separated by similar features (e.g. varietals for large crops and nationality of cultivars for smaller crops).  We then left and I returned later to film the milling, and got to collect 2 gallons of community olive oil that included my very own olives in the mix.  Woohoo!

So how is the olive oil, you may ask?  It is absolutely delicious, and it is what I am now consuming (along with the Olivina brand olive oil I always have on hand).  I transferred it to empty, clean Olivina bottles I have collected over the years (obviously perfect for this), and will likely give some away as Christmas presents to those lucky enough to make it on my list :-)

It is absolutely delicious drizzled on just about any food you like, and I think it is particularly delicious drizzled over stacked tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, or freshly steamed vegetables, such as asparagus.

More importantly to me, however, is not the delicious olive oil.  What matters to me the most is the amazingly clear memories this community pressing evoked in me, and the fact that I was able to close the loop on something that became a part of my consciousness over 30 years ago, during that wonderful trip to Italy, where I first became aware of REAL community, both in family, and with neighbors and complete strangers.  I am happy to be blessed with the ability to impart this to my children, and be a part of any effort to bring people together for worthy causes, even if it is simply to press olives.  It really meant a lot to me, and I filmed the entire wonderful event for all to see.  Please enjoy this (long) and complete record of my experience:

Thank you Olivina, perhaps now you know how much this really means to me, and perhaps others you serve with this wonderful event!

Have a delicious day!

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