Dec 2008

Caltech Olive Harvest Festival

Caltech doesn’t just produce brilliant minds, it also produces some damn fine olive oil. What started as a culinary experiment by a couple of undergrads in 2006, has grown into a highly-anticipated community event. The Astronomer and I attended the second annual Caltech Olive Harvest Festival to check out the action and to lend a helping hand.

With 130+ olive trees around campus, it takes a village to harvest them all. By the time we arrived at the Court of Man, the site of the majority of the trees, the harvest was already in full swing. Since we didn’t participate in Ladder Safety Training, we gathered olives from the ground while those who were properly trained shook the tree branches. Scooping up rolling olives in the hot sun is more fun than a box of rocks! Really! After filling up our first bucket, The Astronomer and I were rewarded with souvenir t-shirts. The world needs more incentives like this.

After picking olives for an hour or so, we were rewarded once again with a delicious lunch of fresh bread, infused olive oils, escargots and marinated olives. The beautiful baguettes were donated by Los Angeles’ very own La Brea Bakery.

Before digging in, there was a brief, but informative culinary demonstration about how to infuse olive oils with fresh herbs and peppers. The chef made a number of infusions using basil, rosemary, jalapeno, ghost chili and thyme. Unlike the infused olive oils sold at Williams-Sonoma, which still taste primarily oily, these were incredibly bright and flavorful. Making oil taste this good is dangerous!

A plate of marinated olives with bread—simple and good.

The Caltech Meat Club sponsored the escargot tasting, which entailed melting down several blocks of butter and mincing pounds and pounds of fresh garlic.

Simmering snails.

The highlight of the lunch spread were the escargots sauteed in garlic, butter and parsley, perched atop bread rounds. The Meat Club rules. I wish I could go back in time and start the Swarthmore Meat Club.

After the harvest, the 2,200 pounds of olives were sent to the Regalo Extra Virgin Oil company to be pressed into oil. Five ounce bottles of “Caltech’s Finest” are on sale at the bookstore for $17. Who knew Caltech was a foodie paradise?

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17 thoughts on “Caltech Olive Harvest Festival

  1. Wow! that looks awesome. Usually I associate CalTech with Judy Cohen, but I think I prefer the olive oil. 🙂

    -Julie (who likes both astronomy and gastronomy)

  2. Great stuff! I blogged about this and I wonder if I could borrow one of your photos (with attribution, obviously).


  3. Thanks! I grabbed the bottle photo and am inserting it. FYI, we’re a Caltech family (I worked there, my husband is a BS ’94) so that’s part of the interest.

    Beautiful photographs, everyone is saying so.


  4. wonderful blog. I see you read a healthy number of food books. I will keep track of your blog. btw, I’ve been to Nickel Diner on a previous occasion and had the pancakes. They were quite good. I generally like sweet things for breakfast too, but the rest of the crew wasn’t up for it.

  5. I found olives at my local market once and tried to brine my own… can we say “disaster.”> This festival looks great, especially the escargot. yummmmm.

  6. Ariel – It was a fun time alright. Definitely one of my favorite fruit picking occasions. I am eagerly anticipating next year’s event.

    jkru – I hope to bump into Judy Cohen sometime, perhaps at the local Trader Joes. I can talk to her about gastronomy, while The Astronomer can talk to her about astronomy 😉 Perfect!

    Fiona – The Caltech community really is quite special. I have no affiliation with the place other than my boyfriend, but I always feel so welcomed at all their events. I’m glad you liked the photo of the oil. It was my favorite of the bunch too.

    Matt – Well, you’ve definitely piqued my interest with the bacon donut, and your site is lovely as well. I like opinionated food people.

    Julia – Oh, I hate food disasters! You’re a brave one for trying though! I can’t bring myself to eat my culinary mistakes, so they usually end up in the trash, which makes me feel super-guilty.

    Emma – The Astronomer and I purchased two bottles of olive oil for family Christmas presents, but were too cheap to splurge on one for ourselves. So, we’ll have to wait until after Christmas to taste it 😉 Appearance wise, the oil is very cloudy compared to regular olive oil. I wonder what that means in terms of taste…

  7. How great! My dad went there for undergrad way way back in the day… what an amazing event, I love that they harvest all of the olives on campus and have a Meat Club! The snails look fantastic on the bread too.

  8. foodhoe – FYI – the bookstore can ship bottles of Caltech’s Finest if you’re interested in surprising your dad with some olive oil from his alma mater for Christmas 😉

    Cathy – I want to have two homes—one in SoCal and another in SoViet.

  9. Looks amazing, wish we could have come… but Oakland is a long way away. At least the olives don’t make a huge mess now on the Olive Walk and in the courtyards…

  10. Deepi – Maybe next year? The harvest also includes a Mediterranean dinner that I didn’t attend. Well worth a four hour drive from The Bay, wouldn’t you say?

  11. I went to Caltech back in the 80’s (and worked with Judy Cohen as an undergrad; I used to be an astronomer) and I’m torn between immense delight that this is happening now, and piercing jealously that we didn’t think of it. Back then, olives were for staining your bare feet.

  12. Try six hours… but tempting… In response to Diana, there just wasn’t much of a food culture back then (unless you count Tommy’s chili fries and Foster’s donuts to be gourmet delights). (I graduated in 92.)

  13. Diana – I heard that the force behind this gastronomical Renaissance is Caltech’s French president. Now, why would you want to stain your feet?

    Deepi – Six is a lot tougher than four. The olive harvest is an annual tradition, so hopefully one of these years you’ll be in town. Btw, I used to live in Oakland near Lake Merritt 😉

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