Truly Good Olives
The town of Fairfax in Marin has made a name for itself in part by passionately taking the organic lifestyle to heart. If there is any doubt about that, the gorgeous newly opened location of Good Earth Natural Foods market will cure you—not only of doubts, but also of anything else that ails you. Just walking the aisles there makes you feel healthier.
Offering the best in local, organic and GMO-free foods and products has been the cornerstone of Good Earth’s business since 1969, so olive buyer Jessica Wilson found herself asking why they weren’t offering their customers organic cured olives at the new store’s extensive olive and antipasti bar. Given California’s booming local organic olive oil offerings, this seemed like a natural extension. Wilson immediately set out to source organic olives and, much to her surprise, the beginnings of her search turned up nothing. Nobody had a lead on an organic cured olive producer.
When you learn that conventional olives take only two weeks to cure, but organic olives take eight months to a year, you begin to understand why they are so hard to come by. Most conventional olives are cured in lye, a corrosive alkaline substance that softens the flesh of the olives quickly and cost effectively. In addition to being used in the production of table olives, however, lye is also used in commercial oven cleaners and drain openers. Hardly something you want to serve next to your Manchego, right?
Organic olives are cured using salt or vinegar brining solutions that take much longer to soften the olive flesh and impart flavor to the fruit. Organic cured olives must also start with olives that have been grown organically, without the use of conventional fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
Through an extensive search, Wilson eventually located a small group of organic olive producers: Easy Does It Farms (Tehama County, CA), Good Faith Farms (Flornoy, CA) and Sorelle Paradiso (San Joaquin Valley, CA). Sourcing from these producers, Good Earth is now able to offer a varied selection of 11 types of organically produced table olives including sun-dried Black Missions, Manzanillas brined in red wine vinegar, Sevillanos, Luques with lemon peel and rosemary, Kalamatas and others. They do also offer a few conventional and imported olives, but none are produced using lye.
Wilson says she spends a good part of her day encouraging customers to try the organic olives and taste the difference for themselves. The organic olives taste fresher, crisper and “cleaner,” and the raw ones are also still full of healthy enzymes. These olives are so good Wilson eats them for breakfast.
Given production restraints, organic cured olives will likely remain specialty items—and available only in limited areas. The core business of most commercial olive orchards is the production of olive oil, a proven money maker. Abbie Rockwell, whose family owns Sorelle Paradiso, says that, like Good Earth’s Wilson, she found herself asking why organic olives weren’t commercially available and was inspired to offer others what she and her family had been making and enjoying themselves for years. Sorelle Paradiso now offers their Field Run Sevillano, Colossal and Spicy Mission varieties through Good Earth. For holiday tables, Rockwell recommends putting Sorelle Paradiso’s Field Run Sevillanos in a ceramic dish along with a little fennel seed, lemon rind and olive oil and warming them in a 300° oven for five minutes before serving. Her family also likes to include them in the pan when roasting a chicken or turkey, along with lemon and rosemary. But these olives are so special that serving them straight up with an assortment of cheeses and a crisp organic white wine might be just the thing for a healthy holiday indulgence.
California’s olive farmers are fortunate to now have a dedicated partner in Good Earth to market their treasures, and so are we to be close enough to pick some up for our tables.
Meagan Riley-Grant is a writer and former producer of feature and documentary films including Monster and East of Havana. Always a food and nature lover, her relocation to Marin has inspired a deep appreciation for the local and seasonal way of life.