A Witch's Brew

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Tasty Home Brew
And now -- just in time for Halloween! Wait! Check that! And now -- just in time for Halloween 2014...

Hey, there's nothing wrong with being early, is there?

To your right is the latest project in the House of Bird. For the first time since I was 18 years old (long time ago kids), I'm "brewing" up something special. If you look below the rosemary and jalapeno peppers, you'll see something mighty tasty down in that brine.

That's right, kids. It's home brined, or home brewed, olives. And not just any olive, mind you. Nope, those are the large, queen sized, green olives -- also known as the Sevillano Olive. While I am also have some Mission olives undergoing a nice salt-water soak -- nothing beats the Sevillano Olive. These are the best of the best.

Henry Madden Library at CSUF
A lot of has changed since I was 18 and brewing my first batch of olives. First -- there was no such thing called "the internets." As for the personal computer, hell, only rich people had those. I was lucky enough to have an electric typewriter. Recipes for home-canned olives were not at your fingertips. They were in the local library. You paid a quarter to photocopy a page out of a book. This is after you'd spent the better part of two hours looking for the correct book at the Fresno State University Madden Library.

This was pure old school.

But, I'll tell you this much: A number of years have passed since I first brewed my own batch of olives. My life has taken many twists and turns that I was not expecting it to take. But I never forgot the incredible taste of home-brewed olives. They made for a tasty snack that a starving college student literally survived on. I stored my brew creation in old one-gallon, plastic milk bottles that I dug out of a dumpster. They sat for months in a dusty apartment kitchen pantry, waiting to be consumed.

Sevillano Olive Soak
Know what? They never went bad! When money was tight (money is always tight when you're a starving college student in Fresno), a bowl of olives made for a nice lunch or dinner.

Fast forward some thirty-plus years and you'll find that a lot has changed. Today, recipes for home-brew olives are literally at your fingertips. Not just one recipe for one type of olive -- but multiple recipes for multiple olives. I must also thank Honest Food blogger Hank Shaw for re-sparking my interest in home-brewed olives, as he wrote about his experiences last year.

A lot of time may have passed between this year's experiment and my brewing experience long ago, but the recipe remains largely the same. Although there are many ways to brine olives -- the standard involves something found in Drano. Yes kids -- as in something you would pour into a clogged kitchen sink. Lye is an essential ingredient for brewing only the best olives and it's still used today.

Good for Opening Drains and Making Olives
A side benefit of this exercise is the grimy sink in the garage used for dirty garden purposes gets mighty clean and mighty fast with one lye soak after another. The garage sink hasn't looked this good since the wife that is Venus and I moved into this North Natomas pad. It also drains like a champ now.

But, I digress. This isn't about sinks. It's about olives.

Although olive trees dot the landscape around many Sacramento and Placer County parks, I found these to be a major disappointment. Many of these trees just don't receive the irrigation they need to produce a good crop of olives. And if these trees are fortunate enough to receive an adequate supply of water, they have no protection from the bugs that drill into immature fruit and lay eggs that eventually become larvae.

Sevillano Olives After Lye Soak
Eating an olive infested with larvae (worms) doesn't sound too good, now does it? Blech!

I would also come to discover that home-brew olive addicts like myself head out to olive orchards in September and October and "steal" from the grower -- the rightful owner. Sorry kids -- but that's just not my style. I don't believe in helping myself to a crop grown by someone else and for a different purpose. Again, "the internets" would come to my rescue.

A grower of Sevillano Olives northwest of Sacramento in a ranch just outside the Woodland city limits had exactly what I was looking for. I could pick ripened olives to my heart's content -- five bucks for a five gallon bucket. Not only that, this was a grower who had properly irrigated and properly cared for his two acre spread of Sevillano trees. "SOLD," I thought at the time. This was the man I was looking for.

Sevillano Olive Harvest
I would spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon at this man's ranch, picking just enough to fill a five-gallon bucket and hauling my prized harvest back home. The lye soak started 30 minutes later. The lye solution accomplishes two major tasks. First, it softens a hard olive. Secondly, it removes the oleuropein compound that makes olives taste bitter. After a 12-24 hour soak, you've got a batch of soft olives that taste like soap.

Probably not a good idea to eat these olives. In fact, don't do it kids. It just results in a really bad tummy ache and perhaps a trip to the hospital to have your stomach pumped.

Time to Start the Brine Process
Once the lye soak has done its job, it's time to get the lye out of the olive. This is done through a series of fresh water rinses and soaks that can take anywhere from a week or two. I changed the water in this five gallon of bucket of olives -- religiously mind you -- every 12 hours. When the color of the water no longer turns brown, but a light shade of green, the lye has been removed.

Congratulations! You have a softened olive that tastes like, well, nothing. It doesn't taste bad. It doesn't taste good either. This is where the fun begins. It's time to put the taste into your softened olive collection. Although salt is a major ingredient of olive brine, don't stop there. Use your imagination!

Peppers and Lime Juice in Olives? Why Not!
In my particular case? My olives are soaking in a solution of sea salt and red wine vinegar. After the first week of this soak -- these olives tasted pretty darn good. But why stop at darn good when you can have jaw-dropping excellence? The second soak, which also included sea salt and vinegar, also contained fresh rosemary, basil and other herbs from the garden. Why not put those late season jalapeno peppers to work? Bay leaves? Sure!

Let your imagination run wild. The only problem you'll face is family members you've allowed in on your little home-brew "secret." They're already staking their claim...


Chris said...

Hi Bill,
A friend of mine pointed out your blog to me knowing that I search my local neighborhood for olive trees. You are right, it’s not easy to find a tree spared from the dreaded olive fly. I lose 10% of my pickings to them. This year I did find an old grove with hardly a peck – big olives too. Often when I pick, I get reactions from walkers-by asking why I’m picking them. “To eat”, I say. They still look at me quizzically.
Have you tried preparing your olives the truly “old school” way - the way it has been done for thousands of years? I mean Greek olives. Slice each olive and soak in water and change daily for 2 weeks. Then soak again in salt water for three more weeks. Then jar with salt water, vinegar, and spices to your content. It’s a different olive and you don’t have to worry about dangerous lye.
If you’re willing, I’d be interested in knowing the grower you go to so I can try the Sevillano olive.
Thanks an good eating!

Heather said...

Bill, you continue to open whole new worlds for me. Thanks for an awesome blog now if only I had more time. Ideas I got! In spades. ~rollergirl

Bill Bird said...

Chris, email me at billbird@gmail.com. I'd be more than happy to share my olive contact. He gets lots of business and wouldn't mind getting more. The ranch experience is a fun one as well.

Anonymous said...

Where did you get your lye? I found some once at a big box store for soap making but can't seem to find any on my last expedition.

I have a mature olive tree in my front yard and next year I might harvest the olives try canning a few jars.

Bill Bird said...

I have a favorite hardware store here in Sacramento (Emigh's) that sells pure, 100% lye. They always have it in stock. I'd stay away from the commercial brands because they contain other chemicals that are not olive friendly. Stick with food grade lye or 100% lye cleaner