Caltech's olive trees have been an occasional food source for many people over the years. Although the trees on the Olive Walk were, until recently, sprayed with pesticides making them unfit for food use, the other trees on campus were quite usable. Tom Apostol, Professor of Mathematics, used to make Greek olives from the trees by preserving them in salt water and rinsing them to remove the tannins. (Recipe here!)
In 2005, Kristen Kozak ('09) tried to preserve some olives by dry curing them, that is, using salt to remove the bitter taste. Unfortunately, the olives were infested by flies. The experiment was repeated with better olives in 2006 by Kristen and four other students (Alex Roper, Robbie Xiao, Dan Rowlands, and Cathy Douglass, all also Class of '09) and met with mixed results. What worked very well, however, was pressing them for oil. These students picked both green and black olives and pressed them with cheesecloth to separate the pulp from the oil and juice, and put the liquids in a jar to separate. The oil rose to the top and was then skimmed off. The students ate the oil plain and on bread.
Also in 2006, undergraduates Dvin Adalian and Ricky Jones did their own olive oil experiment. Using a remedial set of tools and a set of instructions they devised themselves, they managed to purify 550 mL of oil. (For a more detailed account of the process, click here.) They distributed the oil throughout their residence (Ruddock House) and the biology division, to Caltech president and first lady Jean-Lou Chameau and Carol Carmichael, and to their friends and families. The verdict? "It was delicious."
Word of their undertaking spread across campus. The Caltech grounds department joined the project, gathering olives and sending them to the Regalo Extra Virgin Oil company, a non profit organization, who pressed the oil. The grounds department labeled and then bottled the oil. Once the oil was packaged it was presented to the administration.
The olive oil experiment attracted attention from the off-campus world as well, with The Pasadena Star-News, the Los Angeles Times, and KABC television all running stories about the students' initial efforts and their idea to stage a campuswide olive harvest festival in fall term 2007.
Soon a group of Caltech staff and administrators, along with the president of the Santa Barbara Olive Company and a financial consultant, began meeting to plan the first annual festival, which took place November 2, 2007.
The first Olive Harvest Festival held in 2007 was a great success. Over 350 volunteers managed to pick 1460 pounds of olives on harvest day. The Santa Barbara Olive Company pressed and bottled the harvest into about 30 gallons of Virgin Olive Oil. Due to overwhelming demand, the bottles were sold via lottery through the Caltech Bookstore.
If all goes as planned, production of Caltech's Olive Oil will continue each fall.
For more information about olives and olive oil, see this great post from the Caltech Library System: