As one of the earliest cultivated fruit trees, olives are native to Syria, Lebanon and Iran from where they spread throughout the Mediterranean 6,000 years ago. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, Minoans and Romans all incorporated olives into their culture and religion. Early Greek and Jewish kings were anointed with ceremonial olive oil.
Olives were one of many crops brought to San Diego by the Spanish friars in the late 1700s. Original descendants (propagated by cuttings from the long-lost orchards in Mission Valley) still survive around the county.
“The Mother of the California Olive Industry”
In 1895, 56-year-old widow Freda Ehmann used her largest asset (twenty acres of olive trees) and her ingenuity to perfect a method for pickling ripe olives. Her canning experiments on a back porch in Oakland paved the way for San Diegan Charles Gifford to become the first commercial olive grower/canner in the nation. His cans of small black “Gifford’s Olives” were the first widely available in the United States. Gifford along with Kate Sessions and Alfred D. Robinson were the three founders of the San Diego Floral Association in 1907.
Olives ripen to green in late summer, turn maroon in autumn and then black by winter. Harvested olives are much too bitter to eat. Curing in brine, lye or wood ashes makes them palatable. A mature tree may produce over a ton of fruit (enough for about 40 gallons of oil).
Of the over 900 varieties of Olea europa, the four most common grown here are Mission (descendants of the Padre’s groves), Manzanillo (the most prevalent), Sevillano and Ascolano.
To make oil, freshly picked olives (both fruit and pits) are ground into a paste, which is then stirred into a smooth consistency. A press repeatedly squeezes the mixture to separate the oil from the fiber. The best oil, from the first pressing, is called “virgin” provided it is not further processed with heat or chemicals.
Around the neighborhood find groves at:
Cabrillo Canyon adjacent to the Upas Street footbridge
Presidio Park (200 trees dating from the 1930s)