Olive harvest a time to plant

Owen Pidgeon
Easy pickings: Emma Bonell-Balp harvesting olives at Loriendale Orchard.
Easy pickings: Emma Bonell-Balp harvesting olives at Loriendale Orchard. Photo: Michael Conlin

There are very few fruits where you can be harvesting the fruit and planting a new little tree at the same time. Olives are one of those fruits.

We are part of the Hall District, where there are two relatively large olive groves and many wineries. Ours is the only diversified orchard specialising in apples and pears, but we also have a small numbers of other fruit, nut, berry and specialty trees.

Our first olive tree plantings were made to provide windbreaks for the apple and pear orchard. We have continued this practice over recent years along the western boundaries, but our one jersey cow, Princess, has worked out how to push through fencing wires in search of delicious fresh grasses and olive branches. So we have a late-season project to redo one line of fencing.

And now we have just embarked on a special planting of more olive trees. Years ago we planted four Macedon pine seedlings for our four young children after Grandpa Boniface's house was burnt in the Ash Wednesday bushfire in Victoria. Now we have grandchildren who should have their own trees, and also special helping friends who want to make Canberra their home.

We purchased some advanced kalamata seedlings from Homeleigh Olive Grove, Hall - one for our son, Stephen, and Katrina with young Isabelle; one for daughter Rowena and husband Adam, with their son, Christopher; one for Felicity down from Darwin, ably assisted by young Christopher; and one for our youngest daughter, Lauren, and husband Tony, with their baby daughter, Thea. Then two more plantings for Fanny Lobry and Emma Bonell-Balp, from the Lyon region of France, who have helped us for long periods and wished to plant a tree each for their niece and nephew back home, as a sign of our international friendship.

It will take two years for the little trees to produce their first olives. It takes around four to five years for the trees to produce a decent crop, and several years more for them to reach full maturity and produce up to 50 kilograms of olives. For us, we are growing olives for the table.

If you dream of producing your own olive oil, remember that it takes at least 5 kilograms of olives to produce just one litre of oil. That is for the main oil-producing varieties such as corregiola and frantoio. If you are using manzanilla or kalamata olives then you will need 8 to 10 kilograms to produce one litre. The quantity is lower, but the quality is high.

The frosts hit when our apples and olives were in full flower. As a result, few olives set at the tops of the trees and some trees have virtually no crop at all. However, those trees that got over the first hurdle and were given regular waterings through the months of drought have produced good-sized fruit. The late-autumn rains have been very good for the table olive varieties, especially kalamata and manzanilla.

The O'Clerys, of Homeleigh Grove, are expecting to harvest 20 tonnes of olives this season. Like us, their crop is rather patchy because of the late October frosts. In a good season they would expect to harvest up to 45 tonnes from their 2000 trees.

Homeleigh Grove attends the Saturday morning Capital Region Farmers Market and they will have a good supply of advanced seedlings throughout the winter months. They are mainly the good table olive varieties, kalamata and manzanilla.

Pickling olives

Olives need to be pickled following their harvest. Pick the olives when they nearly ripe, when they have begun to change colour from green to pinkish purple but are not fully black. When most of the crop have become this colour, harvest all the olives off the tree.

It is best to begin the pickling process straight away. Sort through your olive crop and discard any that are damaged or deformed.

To speed up the pickling process, prick or cut the skin of each olive. This will allow the salty water to penetrate inside the fruit more rapidly. The brine solution works to draw out the bitterness.

Take each olive and either prick the skin several times with a sharp, pointy fork or make three thin slits in the skin around the fruit. Use a sharp knife to do this but take care, especially when your olives are small.

Add cooking salt to a pot of water to make the brine solution. Add 4 tablespoons of salt for every 5 litres of water. Be sure to dissolve the salt, then allow the water to cool before adding the olives. Place your harvest of prepared olives either in a large stainless-steel pot or plastic bucket, and cover with the salty water to begin the brining process. You can also use a large ceramic jar.

Olives tend to float to the top of the brine solution, so keep them below the surface by placing a ceramic dinner plate or something similar on top. Then stand the container in a cool, dark location and cover with a towel or something similar to keep out all light.

Change your brine solution each day for the next 12 days for olives that still have a greenish tinge. If you are processing olives that are quite black, keep this stage of the brining process going for 10 days. By then, the bitterness in the olives will have been removed and you can then begin the second stage of the curing process.

For the second stage, make up a half-strength brine solution. You can also scale back the replenishing process, changing the solution just once a week. Keep up this stage for four weeks. As you near the end of the processing period, select an olive and check its flavour.

So it will take nearly two months of regular work to produce pickled olives. However, at the end you will have a wonderful supply of homegrown olives for the table; olives filled with goodness and with such a rich, fruity flavour.

To bottle the olives, semi-fill the jars first with brine. Then place as many olives in the jar as possible. Then pour in a little olive oil at the very top of the jar to provide a good seal and screw on your metal lids very tightly.

When you are planning to use your olives, tip out the brine solution and wash the olives well with clean, cool water. To add extra flavour before serving, you could add some coriander or black pepper seed, basil or oregano, chopped garlic, lemon rind and lemon peel. Place the infused olives into the refrigerator for 24 hours before serving.

This week in the garden

■ Harvest any remaining pumpkins with vines attached. Store them in a sheltered sunny location to allow the remaining vine to wither and the skin to harden for winter storage.

■ Late-season tomatoes that are semi-ripe and even still green can be hung on their vines in a warm and sunny location, upside down. The warmth of the late-autumn days will be sufficient to produce ripe tomatoes over time. If you have a surplus of green tomatoes make some chutneys and pickles.

■ Keep weeding around the emerging garlic plants and mulch with organic sugar cane mulch. Apply mulch around your brassicas and leeks as well.

■ Plant out some punnets of onion seeds, especially the creamgold variety.

■ There is still time to plant a green manure crop of oats or rye or mustard, and to plant broad beans that will germinate in the soil while it is still somewhat warm.

>> Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.