Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sonoma's Blessed Olives

Olives - after wine grapes - are the second-most important crop in California's Sonoma - an unpretentious getaway destination and prime agricultural area. Sonoma is actually three overlapping places in the north central part of the Golden State - town, valley and county.

During the otherwise slow, rainy winter months, Sonoma puts on an annual three-month-long Festival of the Olive ( Local chefs feature the fruit in their dishes, bartenders vie with one another to fix the perfect 'dirty'' martini - spiked with olive juice and flecks of fruit - wineries set out olive oil tastings, hotels offer off-peak deals and the area generally celebrates all things olive.

As it happens, my wife and I are amateur olive growers. We have a few slender, young trees on our property and in recent years have home-cured olives we hand-picked from our trees. The goal is to make our own olive oil when we get a big enough crop.

So it was that we motored yesterday to the town of Sonoma for the blessing of this year's commercial olive harvest. The event took place before a hundred or so olive fanciers in the nearly 200-year old Somoma mission and church - the northernmost and youngest of the chain of missions built from Mexico's Baja California deep into the U.S. state of California from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Founded by Jesuit and Francican friars from Spain, the missions introduced olive trees to California. The variety - or cultivar - the padres planted is known today as the mission olive. This is the variety we have out in back of our house.

This 11th annual blessing of the olives was a lovely event, staged to the sounds of an acoustic trio playing (mostly) Mexican music in the long, deep, narrow nave of the old mission, which is still used for Roman Catholic church services. The blessing was performed in a soft, lilting Irish brogue by Rev. Michael Kelly.

Outside the church, in what is now a state park, mature olive trees flourish, providing, in the warm months, a sheltering canopy for picnicers (admission $3 USD). The church's full name is Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, and it humble but beautiful, with whitewashed walls, narrow windows and a weathered roof supported by wooden pillars.

Wendy Peterson, of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, MC'd, as half a dozen speakers extolled the health benefits of olives, spoke of the millennia-old olive oil trade born in southern Europe, the Near East and north Africa, proudly recounted the painstaking revival of historic, long-neglected olive groves at the California missions and hailed the modern American trade in olives and olive oil. California produces well over 90 percent of U.S. olive oil. In recent years, the state's growers have become mainstays of the organic, slow food, locavore movement.

Sadly, the nonprofit group that spearheaded the worthy work of reviving the old groves - the Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration and Education Project - disbanded after yesterday's ceremony. After 13-years of volunteer labor, its trove of knowledge is headed to the University of California at Davis and other educational centers where it can be cared for and developed.

If you visit Sonoma, be sure to sample some olive oil. If you have time for only one olive-inspired stop, check out the Olive Press shop ( at the far southern tip of Sonoma Valley. Then, sip some local wine. Combined, the olive and the grape provide a true taste of Sonoma - and California.

For more, phone toll-free in the U.S. 866.996.1090, or, when you're local, go to the visitors' center in the handsome brick building in the town of Sonoma plaza: 453 First Street East, Sonoma, CA 95476 USA.

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