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Awake at the Whisk: In Search of the Perfect Olive Tree

Friday, May 7, 2010


In Search of the Perfect Olive Tree

Last year, my husband and I suffered the devastating loss of a 200-year-old black walnut tree in our yard. The massive beauty provided shade, privacy, walnuts for baking, habitat for birds and squirrels, and a sense of peace. The majestic tree reached so high and so wide that there was no place one could stand to see the tree in its entirety. Needless to say, I wept like a child when we learned of the tree’s removal by the flood control department. We fought for months to prevent its loss, but we—and the tree—lost out in the end.
Hoping to fill the massive void left from this loss, my husband and I began researching a replacement. We were fortunate to be chosen for a recent TV backyard makeover, which has helped to tremendously improve the view where the tree once stood. But we want another tree, too. We want the privacy, shade, and comfort that come from a formidable tree. We would also like one that might provide food for us and for the birds, as the black walnut did. We also want something evergreen, drought hardy, and a tree that won’t grow too high into the power lines and risk being butchered by the power company. Double bonus if we might find something with a story and a history, as our old walnut had.

Our research has led us to a mission olive tree. This wonderful tree dates back to the early days of world exploration. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers brought these trees to the Americas, (although to date, the genetic code for mission olives remains only in the Americas). In 1795, the first mission olive trees were planted on a Spanish mission in San Diego, California, and in 1803 the first oil was pressed from them.

Over the years, as religious missions declined and as commercial olive production increased, many original mission olive groves disappeared. However, one group, the Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration and Education Project (MOPREP) formed in 1998 to address this loss of our culinary heritage.

In 2001, Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad became the first religious mission since the 1800s to plant a mission olive grove. Other missions have followed suit. Equally inspiring, in 1998, one of the original missionary olive groves was rediscovered on private land, uniting MOPREP around its restoration. Since then, the group has been fervently propagating new trees from the restored heritage varieties. The group even offers the trees for sale, hoping to reignite the once-forgotten missionary tradition of Mission Olive oil production in California.

However, contemporary olive oil production in California is certainly not limited to the heritage varieties of mission olive trees. Locally, one of the finest olive oils in existence, Bariani Olive Oil, has been made using a combination of mission and manzanillo olives since 1991.

When my husband and I first started researching the best olive tree to plant, I knew I needed to talk to Angelo Bariani, owner of Bariani Olive Oil. I know I can always find him smiling merrily at the farmers’ market, ready with a cheerful “Buongiorno!” In broken English, Mr. Bariani told us that manzanillo olives are his favorite for eating as table olives, but that mission olives come in as a close second.

Next, I asked food writer and expert Hank Shaw. Mission olive was his first recommendation for planting. While I was asking experts, I also stopped into Corti Brothers. World expert Darrell Corti wasn’t there, so I asked a woman behind the deli counter. Oddly, Corti Brothers wasn’t carrying any mission olives for sale. She said they used to purchase them from a supplier who has since forsaken the tasty olives for more mainstream varieties. Yet, she, too, recommended mission olives as a flavorful choice for planting.

Aside from the boring black olives used to garnish pizza, I’m not sure I have ever tasted a mission olive. I will have my chance soon enough. We planted our mission olive tree a few weekends ago. What a beauty! We placed it just a few paces from the large stump that remains of what was once our black walnut. We are hopeful that our new tree will live a long, productive life, too.

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