It is nearing the end of Autumn and the weather should be turning cold but it is Fremantle, Western Australia. The sun does not disappoint. We need the rain. We will have to wait. So in the mean time…
Lee has been out collecting olives. With the help of children and parents, the orchard at Booyeembarra has been raked. These trees are only a few years old. To think they can live for centuries, even thousands of years. Their trunks will become gnarled, their branches thick. For now they are mere babies, but already they are bountiful. Despite the sandy soil or perhaps because of it. The branches have been rattled and the olives have been collected in large, colourful plastic tubs. Kilos and kilos of them. Aubergine purple. Firm fleshed. Tips of green.
In the schoolyard they will be soaked in a large wheelbarrow filled with water. Children will sort the sticks and leaves from the olive fruit and, washed clean, they are poured into the crusher.
Taste if you dare; the raw olive is unbearably bitter. I bite into an olive. It has soft white flesh with a pale buttery look, but its flavour is acrid and foul. How the ancient civilizations decided something tasting as smooth and fine as olive oil could be extracted from something so utterly rank is a mystery.
From the community enter Pete – he who has an olive oil making machine. He brings it to the school and sets it up on the sun drenched bitumen. He has a bushman’s hat. And a big smile. He instructs the children on the process. He has taken time out of his life to volunteer at the school and, in his giving, he is getting too. Afterwards he says how much he had enjoyed the day, was heartened to see the children so enthralled in learning, and how the experience has made him feel the planet is in good hands. All this; just by being with the kids.
From John Curtin Secondary College two interested teachers have crossed the road to help. Perhaps it is a chance to be away from the pimple-faced teenagers and relax in the easiness of the bright-skinned pre teens. To less grunts. Where boys are still happier in shorts. Girls still content with tied blue ribbons in ponytails. No lip piercings or tongue studded students giving them hell. Here in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden project they are learning too. In the sun to boot. Everyone is keen to unravel the secret of the olive.
Encircling the old cement troughs the children huddle around to hear how it’s done. The boys are perched on the window ledge peering down into the small vat. They are all eager to see what the small machine can do. They jostle and push to keep their space. They are jammed up close to one another. There is no personal space. It could be a nit field day. First the washed olives will be crushed, seeds and all, by the grinding machine. Like gravel in a mixer. It is noisy. The resultant pulp is given a tasting. Pete encourages everyone to have a try and cheerfully they do. Ohh man. Spitting. Screwed up faces. Gross. Next, the resultant paste must be mixed for forty minutes. This malaxing the paste, allows the small oil droplets to combine to form bigger droplets and is an indispensable phase. Waiting must be learned too. And outside in the sun with your mates, it is not a bad thing to do. Good things take time. Creating requires patience. Next the pulp is pressed, squeezed till its oil is set free. It is a slow process. The children imagine doing it by hand as once it must have been done. In large containers this liquid is then left to settle and to the surface rises the oil. Green and golden. This is scooped off by the spoonful and tipped into the coffee filter paper lined-funnels to collect the first press oil drip by slow drip. Into brown glass bottles the first spoonfuls of oil slowly collect. Maybe at the next kitchen garden the oil they use will be the one they have crushed and pressed today.
Okay so it isn’t fast and it isn’t easy, but it is completely magical. The oil came from the inedible tasting olive collected free from a park down the road and washed only an hour or so before.
Last week’s gardening crew is in the kitchen making the simple pasta that will be eaten for lunch. Today it is Linguine with lemon, basil leaves and Parmesan. They have zested and grated and squeezed. They have been surprised by the deliciousness of a combination of simple, peasant ingredients. It is earthy. It is fresh. Of course olive oil stars here too.
Then again seated at the long table, the sun ever-present, elbows tucked at their sides, more because of the tight confines than the request for good manners, linguine is eaten and olive oil runs down chins…