The Mission olive's history is one part mystery and one part hardscrabble California survivalism. Olives were brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s, starting with plantings in South America. The cutting trail eventually landed at the California missions and by the early 1800s, Mission San Diego de Alcala was pressing California's first olive oil. It was momentous enough to be written about and allowed the missions to heal cuts, fuel lamps, make soap, lubricate machinery and of course, eat well.
While the Mission olive found a home in California -- the trees thrive in the coastal valleys -- it disappeared completely from Spain. Tests done at the University of Spain at Cordoba were unable to link it to any of the 700 varieties they have documented. Which means that the only place you're going to find the Mission olive today is right here. Or more specifically for farmers market customers, at Flora Bella Farm.
The Mission's pedigree wanders off the purity trail somewhere in the early 1900s, after other varieties -- the Picholine, Ascolano, Sevillano and Manzanillo, according to a University of California pamphlet from the 1920s -- were introduced and California's olive industry took off. It was the recent rediscovery of one of Mission La Purisima Concepción's (Lompoc) original olive groves -- the trees live for over 500 years -- that set things to right. And now, thanks to select cuttings, the Mission olive is back in business.
Fresh olives contain an extremely bitter compound called oleuropein, which is leeched out during the curing process. Curing your own olives is a labor of love involving either repeated fresh water changes, lye, brine and/or mountains of salt. Still, the results can be roll-your-eyes-back-in-your-head good. James Birch of Flora Bella Farm has plans for a quirky traditional cure he learned from Italian visitors at the farm.
"They said to find a nice cool stream, throw the olives into a basket and let the water run over them for a few weeks," said Birch, who added that it's a lot less labor intensive than the repeated water changes usually required for vat curing. "I'm going to try a batch this year after we get a little snow melt."
For those lacking a Sierra snow-pack-fed stream, there are other options, the most popular being a brine-soak. Our coverage of the 2010 Caltech campus olive harvest includes a special home curing recipe from Caltech Professor of Mathematics, Emetrius Tom Apostol. The University of California Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources also has a handy and comprehensive safe home olive curing document available online. Note: If Kalamata-style olives are your choice, they recommend the Mission olive due to its high oil content and dense flesh.
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Flora Bella will have the Mission olives from now into November, though each harvest will slowly become darker in color as the olives ripen through the season. You can find their Mission olives at the Santa Monica (Wednesday) and Hollywood (Sunday) farmers markets. Joe Avitua out at Walker Farms also has green olives in season - the Manzanillo. You can find them at the Pasadena (Saturday) and Glendale (Thursday) farmers markets.
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