Olive You

Beyond the Olive Grove…

Fans of quirky roadside attractions have enjoyed taking pictures at what’s fondly referred to as the Giant Olive at South Avenue and Hall Road in Corning for years now. Some find it by happenstance and others follow directions from the popular website Roadside America. This 15-foot sculpture of a green olive skewered with a toothpick doesn’t have a sign explaining its progeny, but it’s a fun welcome to a town that has developed from its inception through olive production.

“Olives have been the capital of Corning for as long as the city has been around,” says Christina Hale, executive manager of the Corning Chamber of Commerce. “The climate is perfect for olives. They’re on the tree almost all year long and our dry summers make for good conditions.” Indeed, the olive heritage can be seen in groves around town now more than 100 years old and still growing strong. Mission and Sevillano are the primary varieties, with both being used as table olives and in boutique olive oils that are winning awards in tasting contests the world over.

Home to Bell Carter, the nation’s largest and world’s second-largest producer of table olives, as well as oil producers such as Corning Olive Oil and the popular I-5 stop, The Olive Pit, the town comes by its title Olive Capitol of the World honestly. The Olive Pit has even perfected a popular olive oil milkshake to give visitors an unexpected taste of its famous fruit.

September and October usher in olive harvest, with hundreds of workers out handpicking the trees throughout the Corning area. While newer orchards have been planted for mechanized harvest – known by their smaller size and tight plantings – the heritage trees that grow large require the delicacy of a hand harvest.

Crops will be processed for cans found in grocery stores across the country. Others are more selectively brined and jarred with flavors such as garlic and jalapeno, or they’re stuffed with almonds. Others will be prepared for martinis while still others will be pressed into oils, sometimes with infusions such as garlic and citrus. While noted most for culinary use, olive oil has also become a popular ingredient in health and beauty products such as soap and lotions, where it can nourish skin.

Since 1947, Corning has celebrated its olive heritage with an annual festival in October. While public health orders have modified things significantly, the show will go on this year as well. A farmers market, an essential service, will anchor the gathering, and safety measures will be enacted. “We’ll be sure to take every precaution,” says Hale, noting social distancing measures and availability of hand sanitizers and face masks for the event.

While popular activities such as the Kid Zone and car show have been eliminated this year, it was important to the community to hold a farmers market, which is allowable under the state COVID-19 guidelines. “We put it on pause, but we’re bringing it back for this one-day event,” says Hale. “Even though this year everything is a real struggle with COVID-19, we want people to know that their community is still there for them. We want to be unified in a hometown spirit.”

In the early days, the Corning Olive Festival was a fundraiser for Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which was undertaking construction of a new church and parish hall. It was eventually taken over by the Corning Chamber of Commerce and became an autumn tradition. The history of the crop is recorded and presented at the Corning Museum, which shares a building with the Chamber of Commerce.

Odes to the olive permeate the community in the week proceeding, with a search for a golden olive being a highlight. Hidden by an anonymous community member, clues to the location are offered daily on Facebook, the Chamber website and in the newspaper. “It keeps the community on their toes and out and moving,” Hale says of the heated competition to find the olive.

Then there’s an Olive Drop sponsored by Corning Rotary, where thousands of numbered olive replicas are dropped from a fire truck onto a marked grid, with the olive hitting closest to a target winning the number holder great prizes. “They all come flying out,” Hale says of the popular spectacle.

From milkshakes to roadside attractions, to historical exhibits and games, the town of Corning is eager to share its heritage and pride in the crop that’s kept it going from day one. However you enjoy your olives – pitted and attached to each finger in childhood delight, as a savory salad dressing or dirtying up a martini at happy hour – the people there are happy to share their passion for olives any day of the year, but especially at their annual festival.

Find a tasty recipe using olive oil from Corning on the following page. Wild Grove Garlic-Infused Olive Oil can be found at Enjoy the Store in Redding.

Corning Olive Festival and Farmers Market
Saturday, October 10 • 10am-4pm
Corning Community Park, 1485 Toomes Ave.

About Melissa Mendonca

Melissa is a graduate of San Francisco State and Tulane universities. She’s a lover of airports and road trips and believes in mentoring and service to create communities everyone can enjoy. Her favorite words are rebar, wanderlust and change.

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