28 Apr

Caltech branches into … olive oil

By Larry Gordon,

Take 130 trees dropping olives on campus walkways. Add in students seeking prankish respite from their studies. Mix in a French-born university president with a taste for Mediterranean cuisine.

That’s the formula for making olive oil at Caltech.

The institution better known for rocket science is launching its own brand of the golden kitchen condiment, produced from the trees on its Pasadena campus. A minor flood — upward of 300 gallons — is expected this fall.

“We are here to educate students, but we are also there to give them an opportunity to experience different things in life,” Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau, an engineer who loves cooking, said in explaining why a school without a botany course is embracing a project that seems more suited to a farm college than a Nobel Prize factory.

The olive trees, which average 80 years of age, provide the science-and-engineering campus a canopy of shade from the San Gabriel Valley heat. But those trees drop so many olives in autumn, staining walkways black and felling skateboarders, that the school sprayed them to retard fruit growth and even considered replacing them with fruitless varieties.

In October, the ripening crop snagged the attention of students Ricky Jones and Dvin Adalian. They began an exercise that might date to Socrates’ pupils in ancient Greece: whacking olive trees with a stick (in this case, a plastic pipe) and collecting what falls.

“I was just trying to relieve the stress from being inside and busy all the time. I wanted to go outside and do something else,” recalled Jones, 21, a talkative biology major from Minnesota who wants to be a physician.

“As a physics major, I’m supposed to be working on a chalkboard or something,” explained Adalian, 20, who is from Virginia. “But it’s nice to go out and do something physically and show I can do something useful besides physics work.”

The two proposed an experiment: Could Caltech’s trees produce olive oil?

“We want to figure out stuff people haven’t done at Caltech yet,” Jones said. “There is always this feeling at Caltech that you want to find something new to do.”

Good timing intervened. Recently arrived from being second in command at Georgia Tech, Chameau and his wife, Carol Carmichael, noticed the pair at work with tarps and buckets on the aptly named Olive Walk. Told of their plans, Chameau issued a challenge: If they actually made oil, he would cook them dinner at the presidential residence.

The students, with help at various times from as many as 15 friends, took up the dare, armed with a little Internet research and a lot of winging it.

Their 30 pounds of black and green olives were cleaned, soaked and (somewhat) pitted. Four kitchen blenders in the Ruddock House dorm pulverized the olives into “this slurry, a disgusting mess,” Jones recalled. The glop, Adalian said, was stewed in “lots and lots of pots” for two hours in kitchens on three dorm floors.

The odor triggered some complaints. “The smell of stewing olives is wonderful, but it is a little bit powerful,” conceded Jones, the dorm president.

It took engineering trial and error to separate the oil from water and solids.

The students first placed the stew inside plastic garbage bags — with cheesecloth and punctured holes at the bottom — and pressed down with cinderblocks and concrete pieces. Some oil dripped into bowls, but most of the bags remained clogged.

The next idea was more successful: press the stew by hand through window screens. (Yes, they did clean the screens first.) Then, with the consent of a somewhat baffled professor, they purified the oil by spinning it in centrifuges in a biology lab.

Jones explained the process in Caltech-speak: “They are different chemical structures, and because of that they don’t bind to each other and don’t have the same molecular weight. So you use a centrifuge to take advantage of that property and separate them by density. So oil will go to the top and water will go to the bottom, along with dirt and particulate matter.”

The result, stored in plastic test tubes with blue caps, was about a half-liter of nice-tasting oil. Late one night, the crew delivered a surprise portion to the president’s house.

“We didn’t realize they would actually have the moxie to walk up to our door at 10 o’clock at night and hand us the olive oil,” recalled Carmichael, a technology researcher who is now Caltech’s senior counselor for external relations. But, keeping their pledge, she and Chameau invited the group over for a November dinner of rabbit stew, onion tarte and cranberry sorbet.

The students’ oil was not used in the meal, but the presidential couple and their six guests taste-tested it along with store-bought samples from around the world.

Carmichael admitted having suspicions. “I have to say at first I was not sure I would eat this without seeing them eat it too,” she said. “We were sort of new on campus and heard all the local legends of Caltech pranks. We didn’t want to be eating dish soap or something.” As it turned out, the oil tasted “wonderful.”

The students’ success inspired Delmy Emerson, Caltech’s buildings and grounds director. Her staff sent a batch of olives to a commercial presser. The resulting 54 small bottles are being given to donors, guests and staff.

In a major expansion, plans are underway to harvest 60 trees as part of a festival next fall. Students, faculty and grounds crews will do the work from ladders and cherry pickers.

The Santa Barbara Olive Co. will handle pressing and bottling, although students will design the labels. The anticipated 3,000 12.7-ounce bottles will be sold on campus and could generate at least $30,000 — probably for scholarships or gardeners’ bonuses.

Craig Makela, president of the Santa Barbara Olive Co., recently visited Caltech to teach grounds workers and students how to turn the trees from ornaments into providers. He was joined by landscape architect Douglas Campbell, an adjunct professor at USC who is advising Caltech on sustainable agriculture.

Standing on Olive Walk, Makela urged the gardeners to trim the trees, which average 45 feet in height, and described an organic deterrent for fruit flies he uses on the 5,500 trees at his Gaviota Coast farm: Put a yeast mixture in plastic bottles hanging from trees; flies enter through holes but can’t escape.

Although he had to explain that olives should be picked by hand (no sticks allowed), Makela said the students “got the principles right.” He joked that Caltech, which manages the Jet Propulsion Lab in La Cañada Flintridge, might wind up sending “a bottle of olive oil to the moon.”

Caltech has joined the California Olive Oil Council, a trade group, and expects to submit its wares for lab and taste tests to gain that group’s approval for extra virgin oil — indicating low acidity, among other things. It is not the first university to do so.

UC Davis wanted to prevent bicycle and pedestrian spills caused by olives dropping from its 1,500 trees, according to Dan Flynn, manager of the campus’ olive oil program. The UC Davis Olive Oil brand offers several varieties, including one named after Gunrock, the school’s mascot mustang.

Cal State Fresno is working on a much bigger scale, testing mechanical picking on 12,000 trees planted very densely on 20 acres. That school expects this year to produce about 4,000 bottles of Fresno State Estate Reserve.

Caltech’s product will be sold under the name Olive Walk. With such commerce, Caltech students realize their oil’s quirky origins may be lost, but that’s an acceptable trade-off if the harvest festival, complete with a celebratory dinner, becomes a tradition.

Jones imagines a future when he might attend an olive festival as an old alumnus. “The students,” he joked, “will be bathing in oil and they could have oil-chugging contests.”

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One Response to “Caltech branches into … olive oil”

  1. pam aitchison Says:

    Hi. I was referred to you by a Master Gardener friend of mine that says you have a program to save old Olive trees. We have four old, heavy producing trees on our church property. The vestry wants to cut them all down because they drop olives on the walkways and patio.

    I was told you would be interested in harvesting the olives and in turn would care for the trees. Is this true? Can you refer me to someone who can help save the trees? We need to find out soon. Please help.

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