Community Milling at the Olivina in Livermore
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
In Chianti, warmly dressed locals arrive at the communal mill in trucks and station wagons with plastic containers or sacks filled with olives and with stainless steel vessels or wicker-covered glass jugs for transporting their oil home. Sometimes there is a little pushing and shoving in the line as these small-scale growers vie for a slot of time at the press. The sounds are high-pitched, the smells are heady, and there’s tension in the air.
As everyone awaits the result of their hard work and nature’s grace, good-humored banter alternates with tentative concern. The farmers often gather in the mill’s back room to smoke and drink wine, and to warm their hands over an open fire over which they will also toast bread for dipping into their new oil. The moment of truth arrives as fresh, young, murky oil finally spouts forth. A farmer’s olive harvest has the potential to keep the whole family, and even the city relatives, in olive oil for an entire year. —Peggy Knickerbocker, Olive Oil: From Tree to Table (Chronicle Books, 2007)
Here in 21st-century California, it’s hard to imagine a smoke-filled back room like the one where the olive farmers in the excerpt above are waiting. But the annual ritual of community olive milling day has arrived in the East Bay.
It started last November at the Olivina in Livermore, where through the last decade Charles F. and Charles D. Crohare have turned their family cattle ranch into a successful olive-growing and-milling operation. They installed a state-of-the-art, high-volume mill to process their own olives into olive oil, and they serve as the local processing station for several other commercial producers as well. But in November of 2010, their mill was put into service for the first time at a community milling event.
“Many people came from all over the area with tired backs after picking their olives, but excitement that they were now delivering the fruit to be made into liquid gold,” says Charles D., as he describes a long line of cars pulling in all morning, with small farmers as well as homeowners and people who own no olive trees at all carrying in buckets, tarps, and ice chests full of olives for the community pressing. He says the excitement hit a peak when people returned in the late afternoon for their share of the olive oil, and many of them sent messages later asking for the community milling to become an annual event.
“I believe that all of the growers have a better appreciation for people in agriculture, since they saw how much work and how many olives it takes to get the bit of oil they received,” he says.
At a community milling, people can bring the harvest from a single tree or many trees, as long as the olives are freshly picked and free of olive fruit fly (or other) damage. Each participant’s harvest is weighed and the olives are poured into the community bins entering the mill. When people return to receive and pay for their olive oil, they get a percentage of the product based on what they put in. The freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil in each bottle they take away is a mixture of the myriad tree varieties everyone has harvested, so there’s no varietal specificity. But the richly fruity and intensely fresh flavor of this “olio nuovo” is outstanding nonetheless, especially when consumed in the weeks right after the pressing. Stored properly (away from light and heat), the olive oil remains good to use throughout the year.
One of last year’s community milling participants was Carol Rice, a fire ecologist and consultant who helped write the Resource Management Plan for Sycamore Grove Regional Park, which abuts Olivina. She has been curing olives for several years, but now can’t imagine holding any of them back from the community mill.
“The families who left olives were practically giddy that this magic was possible,” she wrote in an email correspondence. “For me it was truly a community event, since I don’t own any olive trees. Instead, the olives I had milled were from neglected trees growing along my street in Alamo, augmented with olives from Livermore. This year, I’ve had two families contact me to pick their olives, which I will happily do and share the olive oil with them.”
Another grove of underutilized Contra Costa trees yielded 350 pounds of olives that went into the community pressing. Teacher Matt Zahner says they were all picked by seventh-graders at the Athenian School in Danville, where 20 olive trees were planted around the athletic fields in 1965.
“I’ve coached soccer here for 10 years and each year have watched the olives mostly fall to the ground. Then last year I started teaching seventh-grade social studies. As we were studying Greek history, we learned about how important olives have been to the Greeks throughout their history. I saw a perfect opportunity for experiential education right here on campus.”
He instructed his students on how to harvest the olives and then found himself searching the Internet looking for ways to get the olives milled into olive oil. That’s how he learned about Olivina’s Community Milling Day.
“Charles at Olivina had arranged for a representative from a local bottle company to be present at the milling, he gave me bottles for the olive oil,” says Zahner, who describes bottling the resulting six gallons of extra-virgin olive oil himself on his kitchen table. The kids made labels for the bottles, and every seventh-grader at the school was able to take home a small bottle of Athenian olive oil, with some left over for a school fundraiser auction item. His students will harvest again this year.
“The lessons and the stewardship of caring for the olive trees will be with the students, hopefully, for the rest of their lives,” says this resourceful teacher.
Photos top of facing page and this page: Students at the Athenian School in Danville bringing in the olive harvest from the school’s trees. (Photo courtesy of Matt Zahner) Below: Olive oil freshly milled at the Olivina. (Photo courtesy of the Olivina)
Don’t miss Community Milling Day at The Olivina on Sunday November 13
7am to noon: Olives for milling delivered to Olivina Mill Room (by appointment only), where they are weighed and a receipt is given to the grower. Appropriate oil containers must be left with clear labeling of grower’s name. For safety and liability reasons, growers may not remain on premises at time of milling.
Noon to 4pm: Milling takes place.
5 to 6:30pm: Growers return to pick-up and pay for their olive oil.
4555 Arroyo Road, Livermore