How hard could it be to pick one olive tree?” This is what I thought to myself one morning last December as I set out to harvest our “crop” of olives. As it turns out it’s hard. Really hard.
I’ve been in love with olive trees since I first moved to the Valley and visited Silverado Vineyard’s olive grove in Soda Canyon. I was there early when the first light hit the silvery leaves and it was just so beautiful I’ve never forgotten it.
That same year, I snagged an invite from my sister to attend Robert Mondavi Winery’s 30th anniversary and when we left that night we were given tiny olive tree seedlings. I set them on the sill of our bathroom window and nurtured them, but only one survived the summer. The following year I transplanted it into a bigger pot and eventually into the ground. About five years later I harvested a small crop—about four cups—from it. I cured the olives in a saltwater solution and then finished them with olive oil and herbs. They were delicious.
I had a couple of sparse crops (yes more sparse than a few cups) after that and then I moved the tree a couple of times and have never had another crop since. But about four years ago, I planted a new tree in our front yard. It has grown at a rapid pace and two or three years ago we picked a couple cups worth of olives. I salt cured them, but for some reason we never ate many.
This last year our crop was epic. I couldn’t believe my eyes every time I looked at the tree. I knew if we cured the olives we’d never eat them all.
I decided to take them to the Olive Press for its community press day. Small growers bring their lots, which are then combined and the percentage of each grower’s contribution is returned in oil.
The community press day came and it was time to pick. I thought this would be a no brainer. About 8:15 Jack and I went out front to start. I figured that gave us plenty of time before he had to leave for tennis.
We had barely picked a couple of branches between the two of us when it was already time for him to leave.
I was alone. I started picking as fast as I could. You know that scene of Lucy and Ethel stomping grapes. Well that’s pretty much how I must have looked trying to pick all those olives.
After another hour, I felt like I’d never get all of the olives picked and was on the verge of tears. I called my sister, Lisa and asked her to come help. By the time she arrived, I was out of control, letting olives fall all over the place, trying to use a rake to pick the olives and literally cutting down entire branches because my arms were too tired to reach up any longer.
Lisa helped me finish up, Jack came home and we set off for the press. We dropped off our olives and were assigned a pick-up day.
Two weeks, 4 hours of backbreaking work, 40 pounds of olives and $30 later, we picked up our half gallon of olive oil. One…half…gallon. Thirty two ounces.
I gave tiny bottles of it as gifts to a few people and rationed out the rest. When it had dwindled down to less than a cup, I hid the container until I could decide on the perfect recipe to showcase the rewards of such hard labor.
Finally, I chose one of my favorite comfort foods, pasta with peas. I had planned on mixing penne with frozen peas until I saw fresh sugar snap peas at the market. I snatched them up and made this simple dish for lunch. It’s simple but so perfect for a weekend lunch post-farmers’ market.
Penne with Sugar Snap Peas and Pecorino
Serves 2 to 4
8 ounces mini penne
1 tablespoon butter
6 ounces sugar snap peas, cut into 1/2-inch lengths
6 tablespoons high-quality extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon medium-coarse sea salt
1/2 teaspoon coarse ground pepper
1/2 ounce pecorino
Fill a pot with water. Add a large pinch of salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook for time indicated on package.
While the pasta is boiling, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the peas and cook for about 2 minutes. Don’t overcook the peas they should be warm and still crunchy and not browned or soft.
Drain the pasta, reserving 1 to 2 tablespoons of the cooking water. Add the pasta back to the pot with the water and heat over medium heat. Stir in the olive oil, salt and pepper. Stir in the peas. Transfer to a serving bowl and grate the pecorino over the top of the pasta. Serve.
What to drink: Vermentino. It’s not the easiest wine to find, but well worth the search. A grape typically grown in the warmer climes of the Mediterranean, look for Vermentino from one of these producers: Prelius ($12) from the Maremma region of Tuscany or Piero Mancini Vermentino di Gallura ($15) from Sardinia.