Groves in the Gulf

Olives on our Warm, Dry Islands
by Janet Nicol

Pender Island is a long way from the Mediterranean, yet luscious black olives grow at Waterlea Farm. Owner Andrew Butt has 100 trees, and in a few more seasons, he plans to produce olive oil. There’s no doubt he took a chance, planting saplings from California in soil this far north. Yet this pioneering enterprise flourishes nine years later, all because of the unique dry weather locale off the Georgia Strait.

My interest in olive groves is more than an urban foodie’s curiosity. If my Lebanese grandfather, Mikhail Mansour, had not immigrated to Canada from a hillside village about 100 kilometres south of Beirut, he would likely have spent the rest of his life pruning, harvesting and pressing olives. All over Lebanon, olive oil graces the family table, drizzled over plates of hummus and lebany, a type of yogurt cheese. The Lebanese appreciate the regional distinctions of their oils as much as other Mediterranean cultures do theirs.

Last year Butt’s harvest yielded 200 jars of black olives. He brines and dry-salts his produce, and to date has been sharing the preserves with family and friends. In two years he plans to market extra virgin olive oil from the fruit of his trees. With the buy-local movement afoot, urban chefs can’t wait to purchase this one-of-a-kind Made in Canada product.

It was while picnicking among the olive groves of Tuscany that he became inspired to grow his own. The Waterlea Farm species of olive trees, Leccino and Frantoio, are Italian, and the only type surviving this far north, Butt says. The Gulf Islands may have the only micro-climate in Canada allowing for the growth of olive trees. Even residents of Osoyoos, Canada’s only desert, are out of luck. “I thought of this location, too,” Butt says. “But the winters there are too cold.” He was concerned two winters ago, when Pender Islanders endured five consecutive days of -12ºC temperatures. “My trees suffered frost, but I pruned back the dead wood in spring and the trees were smothered in blossoms.”

The silvery-leafed olive trees, known to live for centuries, stand 12 feet high (over three and a half metres) in perfect rows on sloping land that leads to the ocean. “The grove is southwest facing,” Butt says. “The water has a moderating effect on the temperature, with full sun all day.” The slope allows for decent drainage, and fertilizing the soil with kelp from nearby beaches helps the trees withstand early frosts. “You need to prune them into a vase shape. This lets the sun in through the top of the tree.”

The grove is fenced, to prevent the pesky island deer from feasting on the trees’ leaves. And these leaves have value; they make a tea known for its healthful qualities.

“The olives are harvested when they are three-quarters ripened. This results in a peppery olive oil taste, which is how the Italians like it.” Picking the olives is labour-intensive. “It requires a small team. We rake the branches and the olives fall into the nets below.”

“They first appear as a small, ripe green fruit, but as they progress, they become black olives, favoured for most recipes,” Butt says. They lack the tartness of a green olive, have a sweeter, more full flavour and a softer texture. “I pickle them before they are completely black. They make tasty table olives. I also cure them with salt, so they appear wrinkled—also very tasty.”

Each tree will typically yield three to four litres of olive oil, and Butt plans to market the bottles locally once he has purchased a mechanized press. He is proceeding cautiously before committing to the costly equipment. “The modern press makes excellent oil and reduces the cost of labour. The machine will chop the olives and a press mechanism will separate the debris and oil.”

It is this first cold pressing of olives that qualifies the oil as extra virgin. Once the oil is extracted from a mechanized press, Butt says it is simply a matter of turning on a tap, and the decanted oil pours straight into a bottle.

A good olive oil smells fresh and fruity, not rancid. Personal preference also plays a role; some oils have a peppery taste, leaving a bite in the back of the throat, while others are smoother in flavour.

Olive fever is spreading through the islands; Butt has now inspired six residents on Saturna who visited Waterlea Farm. Enthusiastic about what they saw, the group decided to take advantage of the hotter, drier, more exposed slopes of Saturna, and purchased saplings last spring. “We brought in 180 olive trees from California, and sold 110 trees to Saturna property owners,” says Juliet Kershaw, one of the six. “We look forward to communal brining of olives picked from across the island and communal olive-pressing for oil—whenever that may be.”

The rest of us can only await this golden oil with anticipation, truly a unique addition to the 100-Mile Diet.

Janet Nicol is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and history teacher, whose split heritage is reflected in her indecisive switching between olive oil- and butter-based cooking.

Reprinted from Edible Vancouver magazine, Summer 2010

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One Response to “Groves in the Gulf”

  1. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Hi Janet,
    Recently, my mother (Agnes) was talking about the olives Grandpa used to serve. (He might have brined them himself….?) They were black and wrinkly. I was hoping to find some for mom, and so began a Google search. So where did Google lead me but to your site! What a surprise! So thought I’d just say hello!

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