Do you have an olive tree on your property? If so, I’m jealous. But enough about my envy — do you wonder when to pick olives? Harvesting olives at home is done pretty much like commercial olive harvesting. Keep reading to find out when and how to pick olives from the tree.
Harvesting olive trees begins in late August through November depending upon the region, variety and desired ripeness. Since olives are picked for both eating and processing into oil, the degree of ripeness matters. All olives start out green and then gradually become rosy and finally black. Depending upon the type of oil the grower is making, a combination of all three may be used for pressing.
Traditionally, picking olives is done by hand, even in commercial groves. Today, more growers use modern machinery to help them harvest the crop. At the lowest end of the spectrum, this may only mean using a long handled, vibrating tong to shake the olives from the branches and onto nets spread out under the tree. A little more high tech method involves tractors drawing shakers behind them or other grape harvesting machinery used in high density orchards.
Since it’s unlikely that you own such machinery, harvesting olives at home will have to be done the old fashioned way. First, you must determine the flavor you desire. The earlier you harvest, the more bitter the taste. As the olives mature, the flavor mellows. Decide if you are going to press the olives for oil or brine to preserve them.
There is a clock going here. You must utilize the olives within three days of harvest. If they sit any longer, the olives will oxidize and “sour.” So, if you have a lot of olives, you may want to enlist some olive picking friends and allot a whole day. Seduce them into helping to process or brine the olives with a promise of some of the spoils of the day!
Larger olives have more oil, but the oil content drops as the olives ripen. Green olives have a longer shelf life but tend to be bitter and will take several months to mellow in flavor. If picking olives for oil, pick olives with a light yellow color.
First, place tarps under the tree or trees. Using a rake, gently dislodge the olives. Gather the olives from the tarp. If you are picking for oil, harvest all the olives in this manner and gather up any strays on the ground. Olives left on the ground will rot and can foster disease and olive fruit flies. You may also use a ladder and handpick the olives. While this is more time consuming, it avoids bruising of the fruit.
If you are picking olives to brine, pick green olives when they are mature but before they begin to change color. All olives on the tree will not be in the same state of maturity, so you can continue to pick for brine curing as they ripen. To pick for Greek style curing, handpick when the olives mature and have turned from dark red to purple. Once cured, the olives will turn black.
Depending upon ripeness, it takes about 80-100 pounds (36-45 kg.) of olives to make 1 gallon (3.8 L.) of olive oil. That would require more than one tree and a lot of labor, but a labor of love and a lovely bonding experience for friends and family on a beautiful fall day!
Unlike deciduous trees, evergreens keep their leaves throughout the year. Many evergreen trees bear edible fruits or nuts. While some home gardeners grow fruit-bearing evergreen trees in their backyards, harvesting edible fruits from evergreens, such as pomegranates, mangoes and avocados, is a multi-billion dollar industry, according to Cal-Poly University.
One possible cause of the non-fruiting could be the age of the olive tree. Many varieties of olive trees do not produce fruit until their third year.
Some other olive tree varieties (including, for example, Arbequina) may start producing at a younger age. But the olive fruit that is produced in the early years is often smaller than the olive tree will produce as it matures. And in the early years, the olive fruit can also appear very rough and misshapen.
Different kinds of olives benefit from different cures. Manzanillo, mission, and kalamata olives are the best varieties for brining or salt curing. Larger fruits, such as Seville olives, may need to be steeped in lye to fully cure.
First, select olives that haven't been bruised or succumbed to pests, in particular, the olive fly, whose larvae burrow into the fruits. Wash the olives thoroughly. Then slice or crack the olives, depending on how you would like them to look, to allow the brine to penetrate the fruit. Take care not to cut the pit.
An initial washing in a kitchen colander will probably be needed to remove dust and evidence of birds that frequent the trees. Take the strainer outside, load it with fruit, set the filled container on the patio or driveway, and flush the colander's contents good with the garden hose. Then lay newspapers on the grass and spread the wet fruit out to dry.
Of course, all this could be done in the kitchen, but it's surprising how much space the olives require, and you always seem to have more of the fruit at this point than you thought you had picked.
After the olives have dried, weigh them and then mix one pound of salt with each two pounds of olives. Pour the mixture into the wooden box with the burlap lining and spread a layer of salt one inch deep over the top. The box should be placed outdoors so that any brine which runs off won't ruin your floor (but be sure to keep the container under a shelter in case of rain).
Allow the olives to cure for a week, pour them into a second box and then back into the original burlap-lined box again. This mixing procedure should be repeated once every three days until the olives are cured and edible (it usually takes 30 to 35 days). Along the way, pick out any individual specimens that become soft or get broken open.
After a month — when the fruit will have become well shriveled — separate out the salt with a kitchen strainer or that plastic sand sifter the kids use at the beach.
The colander is then used again to dip the olives for a few seconds into boiling water. After they've drained, let them dry overnight in, say, cookie sheets lined with paper towels.
Once the fruit is thoroughly dry, mix about a pound of salt into each 10 pounds of olives and store your processed harvest in a cool place. The olives will keep this way for about a month, but if you want to store them for longer periods, put them in your refrigerator or freezer.
If you're into Greek, Italian, and Spanish cooking, you'll find dozens of ways to eat your olives. They're especially delicious, for instance, in tamale pie and spaghetti and my favorite use for them is as a relish.
To prepare cured olives as a relish, just sprinkle the fruit with olive oil and mix thoroughly until each one is completely coated with oil. That's it! And no coating of oil is needed at all to make the processed olives ready for tamale pie, spaghetti, and other cooked dishes.
So. If you live in an olive-growing region, quit missing out on a good bet. Instead of raking up all those messy ripe olives, pick them before they fall, spend two dollars and a little time, and process yourself ten pounds of Greek-cured olives.
And believe me: that quantity of the delicacies would cost you a bundle at the delicatessen. And when you proudly serve yours to your friends, the fruit will be worth twice as much because you cured it yourself.
If you are considering growing backyard olives then the Arbequina variety is worth checking out!
Arbequina olive trees are a popular commercial variety of olive because they produce a good olive oil but they are also a common variety sold on the domestic market due to being an early fruiting tree and often produce lots of good tasting olives!
One of two Arbequina olive trees in my backyard. Behind this tree is the trunk of a much larger St Helena olive tree 7 years old but no fruit yet (image above)
Olive trees can take seven or more years before they first fruit and that's in a climate suited to olives (temperate) in other climates such as the subtropics (where I live) olives can take longer to fruit and sometimes not fruit very well even when they do finally mature.
The beauty of the Arbequina olive variety is how tolerant this plant is of hot and cold climates, no matter where it is planted it's likely to grow rapidly and fruit within a few years (sometimes in the FIRST season).
However, there is a "catch" and that is the size of the olive fruit itself… The Arbequina olive is rather small compared to the standard table olive most of us are used to eating. In fact, it's really tiny! I would say it's about 1/3 the size of a Kalamata so yes, it is very small.
The image above shows the difference in size between an Arbequina and the more common Kalamata olives
The first time I saw the size of the Arbequina olive fruit from our own backyard trees, I admit I was a little disheartened. Firstly, I pondered the usefulness of such a small olive and wondered if it was worth curing at all. Then I started researching ways to make my own olive oil because I thought: perhaps it would be a better option to make oil from such a small olive, instead of going through the trouble of curing them for regular eating.
But, I soon found out extracting oil from olives is not at all easy and certainly not a viable option for a backyard operation like mine with not many trees. Expensive and purpose built specialised machines are needed to successfully produce olive oil – it just can't be done with a regular oil machine such as the kitchen bench appliances people use to extract oil from nuts or wheat grass in their home kitchen.
Therefore, I was back to standard olive curing again and I have done this successfully with other olives (you can read about it and see my video here on our forum) however, the way I cure olives in brine usually requires the olive to be scored or cut to the seed with a knife around the whole olive to quicken the curing process. The problem with these Arbequina olives was due to the size not only would it be too time consuming to score each olive but they might fall apart or go too mushy.
So, I decided to cure them whole and see how long it would take before they were good enough to eat.
For those who don't know, olives can't be eaten straight off the tree because of a bitter compound found in the fruit called oleuropein. They need to be cured, usually by osmosis, whereby the bitterness (oleuropein) is leached out of the fruit by soaking them in a brine solution (salty water). This can take anything from several weeks to nine months to do naturally depending on the olive and the method used. It is possible to cure olives in a few days using chemicals (some supermarket olives are done this way) but I won't bother elaborating on that method needless to say it's one of the reasons why I prefer to grow my own olives in the first place rather than buy them.
Anyway, I ended up curing my 1-2 kg (2-4 pounds) harvest of Arbequina olives in a large 4 litre glass Fido jar, which meant there was ample room in the vessil. The ratio of brine to olives was about 2:1 or 2 litres of brine for 1 kg of olives. There was no scientific rationale to how I came up with this ratio – I just happened to have this sized jar available and it took up about 3/4 of the space. However, what I did realise was after 5 weeks the olives were ready to eat and it was only then when I understood the extra brine solution actually speeds up the curing process!
How do I know the olives cure faster when left in more brine? Well, last year I cured our own olives for the first time but I only harvested 1 kg of olives from our trees so I cured them in a 1 litre jar and it took 15 weeks for the fruit to become edible. Granted, those olives were the much larger Manzanillo not the Arbequina I'm talking about here, but because my last batch took so long I roughly calculated this lot would take about 10 weeks due to being smaller – as it turned out I was wrong in my guestimate.
When I went to change the brine at the 5 week mark, I tasted the Arbequina and to my surprise found they were ready to eat. I then wondered why and what had I done differently, which was to simply cure them in more brine.
At the same time as curing the Arbequina olives and also at the time of writing this article, I'm still curing about 7 kgs of Manzanillo olives so when I found the Arbequina were ready I decided to taste the Manzanillo (which I am also curing in more brine than last time) and I found these olives are also close to eating – but not quite – and probably need another 4-5 weeks. Still, that means I will have large olives ready for eating in about 10 weeks instead of 15 and that's a pretty good achievement in my view!
I can't say if there's a perfect ratio for brining olives regarding quantity of olives per brining liquid but more brine does seem to cure olives faster. Having said that, it would be impractical to cure a small amount of olives in a huge vat just for the sake of curing them faster therefore, I do recommend sticking to a rough estimate of 1 part weight to 2 parts brine (for example 1 kg of olives submerged in 2 litres of liquid) for a reasonable curing time.
Once the olives are cured to your liking they can be left in the brine indefinitely (or for at least a long time) and a quantity removed for marinating then eating as required. If the olives taste too salty then it's just a matter of soaking them in fresh water for a few hours or over night until the saltiness has reduced to your taste.
For the brine mix, I use a ratio of 1 tablespoon of fine sea salt dissolved in 1 cup of spring water. Also, I did use an airlock to limit excess bacteria from getting into the vessel but I have to stress an airlock is a nice to have rather than a necessity.
Now that our Arbequina olives were cured enough to eat I marinated them in a medium container with a selection of fresh herbs and spices: garlic, chopped coriander, lemon juice, some vinegar, chillies, and ginger. This marinate mix gave the European olives a nice Asian twist and it does work well together.
I would describe the taste of the Arbequina olive as Moorish and very good quality. I like my olives to have a slight bitterness so I prefer not to over cure them but rather leave a little oleuropein within to give that bitter after taste. Yes, they are small but I don't find them difficult or annoying to eat on acount of the size.
Arbequina olives cured and flavoured in marinate (image above)
Overall, the Arbequina olive is a worthy contender for the backyard foodie to grow. The tree isn't too large, it fruits early, it fruits a lot, the olives are small but the taste is big and I recommend growing them!
If you have any questions or comments feel free to pop them below using our Facebook or guest comments areas.
Another olive harvesting tool used by backyard and artisan growers is the olive net. These nets are usually made from non-toxic materials and either laid on the ground or arranged on a metal frame below the tree. The olive net is used to catch olives picked by hand, raked down from the branches, or shaken from the tree's branches, also by hand. A good netting material is nylon since it's elasticity keeps olives from bruising.
Although rakes and hands are the tools that have been used longest to harvest olives, some more modern hand tools have come on the market. One in particular is an olive harvesting electric whipper wand that uses a circle of moving tongs to knock ripe olives down from a tree's branches. The device attaches to a 7-foot pole and runs off a 12-volt battery. Electric wands like this reduce a lot of the labor required to pick olives manually.
Stephan Sawyer is a writer and translator from Vancouver, Canada, currently living in Central America. He has been writing and translating for various clients since 2007, specializing in topics related to business, marketing and finance. Sawyer studied communications in university and is a fluent Spanish speaker.