How I Learned to Love Olives and Hate Their Pests

Olives left on the tree

Olives left on the tree, Franciscan Winery, Napa. Photo by Nagarjun Kandukuru.

“Reflect that I may be an acquired taste. You probably did not like olives the first time you tasted them. Now you probably do. Give me the same chance you would an olive.”
–P.G. Wodehouse,
Leave it to Psmith

I’ve always hated olives. I’d pick them off pizzas and out of salads. And as for eating one whole? Forget it! But in the last few weeks, I’ve actually started eating them on purpose. It could be because I’m pregnant, a condition which has me craving salt–and few foods are saltier than a nice olive.

Diversity of Olives
Diversity of olives. Photo by {link url=}Steve Jurvetson{/link}.

Olives, of course, don’t come off the tree salty. But they also don’t come off the tree edible. Lye can leach out the raw olive’s bitterness in just a few days, but it’s not exactly flavorful, so the cured olives must be washed and transferred to brine. If you’re willing to wait for weeks, you can also bypass the lye and just cure the olives in straight brine. Plain water and plain salt are other alternatives for patient olive-curers.

Curing, as I’ve learned, is only one of many factors that determine the nature of the final product. Do they pick the fruit unripe or ripe? It’s not as obvious as you might think–some olives are ripe when green, and some unripe olives are made black by processing. Do they treat the olives with vinegar as well as brine? That’s how to make kalamatas–which I still haven’t warmed up to, despite my newfound affection for this 7000-year-old crop. No, I’m loyal. I love my California olives.

Olives in a glass
Martini olives. Photo by {link url=}Edward Peters{/link}.

Olive trees were brought to California by Fransciscan missionaries in 1769; the Mediterranean climate must have reminded them of home, for they flourished. In fact, depending on which story you believe, California olives may have debuted in the original martini, named after the city of Martinez. I only mention this because yesterday was National Martini Day, if you’re into that kind of thing. (For obvious reasons, I’m not.)

Olive trees in California managed to live free of their native pest, the olive fruit fly, for over 200 years. But the persistent parasite finally arrived in the New World in 1998, and within a few years spread across the state’s olive groves. It lays its eggs in olive fruits, ruining them for both oil and eating, and it can perform this trick every 30 days when summer temperatures are ideal. Best for the little maggots is a range of 68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, which means California can fight back with hot summers.

Unfortunately, the fruit flies won the 2011 round. Not only was last summer relatively mild, but the table olive crop was light. When the crop is light, sometimes it’s not worth picking an orchard, so farmers also don’t bother to spray for fruit flies. The triple play of cool summers, fruit left on the trees, and no spray gave olive fruit flies a field day.

Starting with the recent heat wave across the Bay Area, I’m wondering if this summer might deliver a fruit fly smackdown. That’s something pleasant to think about as we sit around sweltering and sucking on ice cubes.

In fact, I’m going to get some olives right now.

Olives left on the tree
Olives left on the tree, Franciscan Winery, Napa. Photo by {link url=}Nagarjun Kandukuru{/link}.
How I Learned to Love Olives and Hate Their Pests 6 July,2012Danna Staaf


Danna Staaf

Danna Staaf is a marine biologist, science writer, novelist, artist, and educator. She holds a PhD in Squid Babies from Stanford and a BA in Biology from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and blogs at Science 2.0. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.

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