As an avid hiker and unabashed forager, I can’t help but spot food while I’m following trails through our spectacular East Bay regional parks. Unfortunately, all the wild and feral edibles out there are forbidden fruit, due to the ban against removing anything from public lands, save the dirt and burrs that naturally become attached to a hiker’s clothing. I can’t say that I’ve never sampled a blackberry while on my walks, but the study of what these foods are, and how they came to be there, has become an appetite all its own, and occasionally, as happened recently, it turns into a magnificent feast.
In springtime, anyone inclined toward noticing blossoms unfurling is aware that there are plenty of stone fruit trees out in the wilds. The fruits that emerge later in the summer are often small and sour, or else soon devoured by wildlife. Park brochures attest to the fact that some of the stone fruit trees in the parklands are remnants of the vast acres of orchards that covered our East Bay landscape after the advent of transcontinental rail transportation (late 1860s) and until the early decades of the 20th century, when the value of land for housing came to outweigh that of land for fruit. Other trees, as I’ve been learning from a horticulturist friend (who is introduced below) are wild seedlings, such as the hybridized cherry plums that sprout with abandon in the wetter canyon areas.
When I first began exploring Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park this past spring and summer, I watched some blossoms turning into fuzzy-hulled almonds along the trails near Sunol. The park brochure informed me that this southern end of the park was once the property of the Thermal Fruit Company, which around the turn of the last century was shipping vast quantities of cherries, apricots, grapes, and almonds all over the country from Sunol’s depot. The brochure also mentioned the presence of olive groves in this southern portion, and so I was specifically looking for them.
From a distance, the olive, a long-lived tree well adapted to persistent summer drought, bears some resemblance to the native live oak, a most prominent feature of the East Bay landscape. Thus, it took me a couple of visits to Sunol, hiking up the steep grassy southern slope of Pleasanton Ridge, to recognize that this little corner of the park harbors many thousands of antique olive trees. The delicate gray-green foliage is one clue, and the fact that the trees stand in rows is another.
Grace Elliott’s Century-Old olive Trees
As I was setting out one morning to marvel again at this abandoned agricultural treasure, I stopped off for coffee and pastries at the Sunol Jazz Café and noticed an advertisement in the Sunolian, the town’s diminutive newsletter, for locally made olive oil. It said, “from Grace Elliott’s century-old trees.” I rang up the number on the ad and found myself speaking with Grace’s great-niece, Kathleen Elliott, who lives on Grace’s hilltop olive ranch, which is essentially an island surrounded by regional parkland. Kathleen began pressing olive oil last fall after several years spent renovating Grace’s orchard.
Kathleen told me that when she was a child, she kept a photograph of her great aunt Grace beside her bed and found inspiration in learning about the life of this unusual woman. Grace, who never married, made her living selling olives along with other things she raised at the ranch: apricots, grapes, and eggs, plus any chickens and turkeys not needed for laying. Kathleen’s descriptions of Grace’s life were so detailed and eloquent that it took me the better part of a day to realize that Kathleen had never met Grace, who died in 1949, several years before Kathleen was born. The ranch was a place where Kathleen’s San Francisco–based family spent weekends, drying apricots in summer and curing olives in the fall, as Grace used to do.
“We got bread from local bakeries, fresh produce from along Alvarado-Niles Road, cheese from the Pleasanton cheese factory, gallons of Ruby Hill red wine, and 25-pound blocks of ice from the Niles train station for Grace’s funky old icebox,” Kathleen told me on a September visit as we sat on the porch of Grace’s little cabin looking out over the grove to the Sunol Valley below. A turkey vulture soared above us and a couple of tarantulas wandered through the yard looking for mates.
Kathleen began living in Grace’s rustic cabin on and off in the 1980s, during which time the East Bay Regional Park District acquired the surrounding ranch lands. She made Hilltop Ranch her full-time home in 2003, spending several years working out the logistics of bringing in electricity and phone service, and devising ways to assure she had water, since she needed it, even if the olive trees did not. Grace’s life was always a beacon, leading Kathleen through her college education in plant science at UC Davis and into a career in horticulture. The decision to move onto the property and go into olive production was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
When Grace bought the property in 1908, she acquired 137 olive trees (manzanillo, picholine, and mission varieties) along with an apricot orchard and vineyard, of which there are no longer a trace. Kathleen doesn’t know who sold Grace the property, since she has not been able to track down the deed, nor are there many records in local archives with clues as to who planted these assets and when. A map from 1878 shows olive orchards on the property of Thomas Bachelder along Kilkare Creek (then called Sinbad Creek), but both Kathleen and I have a romantic notion (supported by some scant evidence we unearthed in park district archives) that some of the groves (and perhaps the old vineyards) could date back to the Mission period (last quarter of the 18th century), when the Spanish friars conscripted their “flock” of native people into helping the land produce such Old World staples as olives and grapes, along with grains and legumes. Mission San José (est. 1797), a mere five miles southwest of Sunol, has 782 olive trees that the nuns have recently brought back into production. Propagating new olive trees from the shoots that sprout up around the base of the old was (and is) easily and commonly done, so one can’t discount the possibility that the Indians (or perhaps settlers in the next century) carried shoots up from Mission San José to expand the groves. The question is more of when they did it.
A Life in Agriculture
Though the origin of the trees is a matter of speculation, what Grace Elliot did with them is no such thing. One of Kathleen’s most prized possessions is Grace’s handwritten notebook of her business dealings in the 1930s. It includes entries showing what she sold and how much she received for the products; who she hired to pick, prune, and plow; how long they worked; and what Grace paid them. There are also accounts of the inevitable accidents and disputes that are part of a life in agriculture.
As Kathleen has moved into production of her estate-grown extra-virgin olive oil, she faces the same basic requirement that Grace did of finding labor to pick and prune. Grace drew from a labor pool of people living in Sunol, but Kathleen would be hard pressed to find local chaps to hire, and instead contracts with a company that schedules workers into farms around Alameda County and the Central Valley.
Grace was selling most of her olives to just a few buyers, who were likely sending them along to California’s thriving olive canneries. A business card for Francisco Paul Buttitta’s Buttitta Olive Oil Co. of Sunnyvale, found among Grace’s papers, suggests she may have looked into milling her olives for oil, but pamphlets from the California Agricultural Extension from that period, also among Grace’s records, show that the value of olive oil at that time was relatively low. While today we recognize olive oil as an integral element of California cuisine, it was considered to be a Mediterranean “ethnic” food in Grace’s day and was not widely used even well into the years when Kathleen first dreamed of becoming an olive rancher. Kathleen’s decision to go into olive oil production comes at a time when the product has become revered for its great taste and for the health benefits only recently documented.
Olive Oil as a Local Food
Even if Grace could not reap the “value-added” advantage with her olives by turning them into oil, she had an advantage over Kathleen in that she could count on local demand for her products, since “local food” was what people mostly consumed back then. Kathleen will be able to sell all of her olive oil locally, no doubt, but she is competing in a marketplace where a majority of consumers are lured by the very cheap brands of “Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil” that line most supermarket shelves. Most shoppers are not aware that much of that oil is of questionable origin, content, and quality, and is often downright tainted, due in part to the loose import restrictions for olive oil coming into the U.S. If you doubt what I’m saying, go online and read Tom Mueller’s “Letter from Italy: Slippery Business: The trade in adulterated olive oil,” published in the New Yorker on Aug. 13, 2007. In an effort to create a more even playing field, the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has developed a certification program that verifies quality and authenticity. Kathleen is nearly through the process of getting her extra-virgin olive oil certified and hopes to achieve the COOC organic certification as well.
Hillcrest Ranch olive oil won’t be making a big dent in the market, however, since Kathleen’s production is very small—she says that last year she harvested a ton of olives, which yielded 32 cases of twelve 375ml bottles each. And while she expects to triple that yield this year with an early harvest in her own orchard and a later harvest from a neighbor’s trees, her product combined with that of all other East Bay producers is but a drop in the bucket, so to speak, of local demand for olive oil, and could not possibly edge out the imports.
If there is any awareness that olive oil is in commercial production in Alameda County, it is largely thanks to the Crohare family in Livermore, who, like Kathleen, have renovated antique groves on their property, as well as adding newer plantings in an effort to expand their Olivina brand of estate-grown extra-virgin olive oil well beyond the local market. Kathleen mills most of her olives at the Olivina facility. She owns a small mill, but it processes so slowly that she would never attempt to run her whole production through it. Instead, she uses it to assist neighbors with pressing olive oil from their homegrown olives.
Kathleen’s interest in helping people enjoy the local harvest of olives extends into teaching about how to cure them for the table. (See page 10 in EVENTS.) As a landscape designer with a love for a certain special tree, she also likes to encourage people to consider finding a place for an olive tree in their home landscape. Gardeners who want to harvest their olives will need to learn, as has Kathleen, how to deal with the destructive olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae), which first came to California in 1998 and has since spread to all olive growing areas of the state. Yellow plastic pheromone traps in every one of Kathleen’s trees are an organic farmer’s way of fighting back, but Kathleen points out with a wry laugh that the fruit flies going after her olives are being well nurtured by the thousands of untended trees in Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park.
On the several occasions when I have visited Kathleen Elliot at her Hilltop Ranch, I also have ventured off to visit the feral olive groves situated nearby in the regional park. Nobody is doing any pruning in those groves—except for the deer browsing on olive shoots. As Kathleen tells me, there is plenty of harvesting going on in those groves at this time of year, but the pickers are all members of the park’s wildlife.
Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the author of Touring the Sierra Nevada (University of Nevada Press, 2007). She is also editor and publisher of Edible East Bay. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park: www.ebparks.org/parks/pleasanton
California Olive Oil Council: www.cooc.com
Hillcrest Ranch Olive Oil
P.O. Box 115
Sunol, CA 94586
Hillcrest ranch Olive Oil can be purchased directly from Kathleen Elliott (see above) or from the following retail locations:
Sunol Food & Liquors, Sunol Jazz Cafe, and Elliston Vineyard in Sunol
The Cheese Taster, 43367 Mission Blvd, Mission San Jose
Kaiser Walnut Creek Tuesday Farmers Market
Fernseed, 3436 Dimond Ave, Oakland
Star Grocery, 3068 Claremont Ave, Berkeley
Regan Nursery, 4268 Decoto Rd, Fremont
Cachet Salon, 7196 Regional St, Dublin