It’s fruiting season for olive trees and almost everywhere you go, you can spot olives darkening in the early winter sun. There are fruit-laden olive trees in parks, on street verges and in restaurant courtyards. You might even have one in your own garden. However common olive trees might be, instant gratification from an olive is not.
Intensely bitter when freshly picked, the fruit takes some cajoling to come good. Enough cajoling, that many gardeners don’t tend them for their produce at all.
One carefully positioned olive tree can cast great shade; a few can make a perfect hedge. Olives can be grown in pots, turned into bonsai or – at least for a time – treated as houseplants. Give an olive free-draining soil, full sun, a hot, dry summer and a cool, wet winter and it will thrive.
The Olea europaea is nothing if not adaptable. You don’t have to be on holiday in the Mediterranean to relish its gnarly trunk, twisting branches and grey-green foliage. But as anyone in the Mediterranean will attest, the pleasures shouldn’t end there. The crux of an olive tree is, well, its olives.
A few years ago, urban agriculture facilitator Merrin Layden began to ruminate about all the olives that were being grown – only to go to waste – in Melbourne. She and others working at 3000acres, the social enterprise that is forging new ways for urban food growing, decided to raise awareness of this local food and how it can be turned into provisions for the year ahead.
While the wave of Italian and Greek immigrants who planted swathes of olives in Victoria in the ’50s and ’60s knew exactly how to pickle them in brine, dry-cure them in salt or soak them in glazed earthenware vessels for 40 days in water that is changed every two days, 70 years later this sort of know-how is disappearing.
“The thing about olives is they are so prolific but the tradition of knowing what to do is so tied up with that time of European post-war migration,” says Layden, the food systems manager at CERES 3000acres. “People might read a recipe or do a workshop and then try preserving but it doesn’t go as they expect and so they give up. Or they preserve some and the rest goes to waste, there’s only so much you can do.”
So Layden and others hatched a plan to encourage people to pick olives that would otherwise go to waste and then pool their harvests for a community pressing of olive oil. The inaugural Olives to Oil Harvest Festival in 2018 collected 280 kilograms of olives that was pressed into more than 28 litres of oil. The next year, the same festival brought in nearly 3000 kilograms of olives, and in 2021 the number ballooned to 6600 kilograms.
Layden says the growth “was staggering”. This year, they widened the event to include three different dates and places for olives to be dropped off and then pressed, by Barfold Olives in Kyneton, into oil. Two were held in May and the final collection will be at the Corner Store Network in Oakleigh on June 18 and 19.
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