By Sandy Brundage
Fifty olive trees shelter the walkways of Sacred Heart Preparatory School in Atherton, as they have done for 75 years. For most of those seasons, the olives fell to the ground, rotting, but for the past two years, the school community has gathered to harvest the olives and sell the high-quality oil as a fundraiser.
The annual harvest started when Paul Sallaberry, who owns an olive grove in Carmel and whose children attend Sacred Heart, asked, why not pick the fruit? He said the idea immediately appealed to the principal, who had to watch the school pay to have carpets cleaned every year as visitors tracked in olive mush on their shoes.
Volunteers drawn from the ranks of students, parents, and staff collected green and purple Picholine olives about the size of a thumbnail from dawn to dusk on Sunday, Nov. 14. Teacher Stewart Slafter explained that the two colors don't indicate two different types of olives; instead, the olives change from green to purple to black as they ripen.
"They don't look anything like they do in food," said student Adriana Zuno, 16. She and a friend, 17-year-old Danny Mendoza, decided to pick olives to help out one of their favorite teachers — Mr. Slafter — and to take a closer look at how nature works.
Some volunteers ride lifts to the treetops, where conversation flows easily in the slanting sunshine between people who may never have spoken before. "You have one thing in common — 'go olives!'" said Adriana.
From Mexico to California
In her book, "The History of the Olive," Dr. Judith Taylor described the olive tree as an immigrant. According to Dr. Taylor's research, the olive first arrived in Southern California during the 16th century, carried by missionaries from Mexico. Former school administrator Sister Nancy Morris, of the order of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, said the trees eventually made their way north to the school campus, courtesy of Faxon Dean Atherton.
Olive branches are a traditional symbol of peace, but in more recent times, olives also represent a battle in California over the labels pasted on each bottle of oil that proclaim "extra virgin," a premium status in the marketplace.
According to Mr. Sallaberry, earlier this year scientists at UC Davis analyzed 19 brands of olive oil, both imported and local, and discovered 69 percent of the imported brands marketed as "extra virgin" failed to meet international standards for the certification. The study also found that only 10 percent of California brands failed to meet the mark.
One requirement for achieving that top-shelf status has to do with how the olives are processed; "extra virgin" oil must be produced with no solvents and without heat. So when Sacred Heart set out to create a truly premium oil, the choice of which press and which process to use for extracting the oil from the fruit was critical.
First mobile press
Last year the school found a certified extra-virgin olive oil press within driving distance. Even better, the press would come to them.
The plan at Sacred Heart was to pick olives and then, without wasting a moment, turn the fruit over to OlivetoBottle.com's mobile press, the first of its kind in the United States and one of only three in the world when it debuted last year. Mark Robinson, who helped design the custom rig, showed off the inside of the truck, which looked surgically clean.
"We wanted to turn making olive oil into an event," Mr. Robinson said, while explaining how he and a few colleagues came up with the idea to bring the press to the olives, and not the other way around.
The press stays busy from November through January. Mr. Robinson hoards his vacation time as a civil engineer with Caltrans to be able to travel with the rig. "I could be sitting in a cubicle right now," he said with a grin and looked up at the clear blue November sky. "This is fabulous."
The weather on Nov. 14 cooperated with the harvest, but the mobile press, not so much. After the truck pulled into the Sacred Heart parking lot, the engineer realized the heart of the press, a heavy piece of metal resembling an octopus that pulverizes the olives into mush, was off-balance and not safe to use.
Fresh olives don't keep long, Paul Sallaberry remarked. A flurry of phone calls located a local press late on Sunday afternoon. "You press or you lose," he said while carting buckets of olives to a truck for transport.
Balm for the spirit
The November harvest this year yielded 2,000 pounds of olives, ready for pressing. Two tons of olives make about 350 7-ounce bottles of olive oil, according to Sacred Heart spokesperson Millie Lee; the bottles will sell for $20 each. All money from the sale goes back to the school to fund student activities.
Each bottle bears a label designed by high school junior Nick Lamkin, who won an art department competition. The label proudly proclaims, "Extra Virgin Olive Oil, unfiltered, from the heritage olive grove at Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton."