A visit to an olive grove in New Zealand last year and subsequent tasting of some excellent oils got me thinking. The cool and wet climate I experienced that day is just like the British Columbia coast. Why can't we grow olives to make olive oil? A bit of Internet surfing, a few phone calls, and before I knew it, I was on the ferry to Pender Island. A quick drive from the ferry, and I was looking at my first Canadian olive grove. The slim trees with narrow, silvery leaves looked out of place somehow, but dozens of them sloped in perfect rows from the top of a small hill down to the ocean, which surrounds the grove on three sides, bathing the property with the warm Mediterranean-like currents necessary to the survival of the tender saplings.
"I'm a bit of a romantic at heart, I guess, and spending some time in Tuscany just picnicking in the olive groves stuck with me, and realizing we had such a warm climate on our property here on Pender, I decided to give growing olive trees a go." Andrew Butt, an international fertilizer-ingredient broker, and his wife, Sandy, own the idyllic property, which also supports a 12-metre fig tree and numerous peach trees, a testament to the mild weather. He quickly realized that starting and maintaining the olive grove was a little less romantic than he imagined. "First we had to hack away years of incredibly tenacious blackberry thickets to clear the land. Then I had a hard time getting trees to import from California. Olives are a booming industry there now, and all the nurseries in all of California can't meet the demand for saplings. I wanted to buy a few trees to see how they would do, and they weren't interested in selling anything less than five thousand." Finally he found a small nursery in that state willing to send up an initial batch of 20 trees. Once those were planted, he discovered he needed to build a fence. Even though olive trees are not native to B.C., the deer find the leaves delicious.
Now the grove is about 70 strong, with most of the trees about three years old, and Butt has a way to propagate new saplings from his current trees. So far they're doing very well, impressing olive-tree specialists at the University of Southern California, who are monitoring his efforts at growing these particular Italian species, Leccino and Frantoio, farther north than ever before. If all continues to go well, Butt will press his first oil from this olive grove in 2007, putting doubters in their place. "I think when we first planted, the trees people thought we were stark, staring mad, a lot of sniggering, but now we have some genuine interest, not only here but on the other Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island."
As Butt showed me through the grove early in the new year, we saw a few broken branches and a bit of leaf damage. The area had been hit by a heavy snowfall and several days of temperatures well below the freezing mark. The trees held up. Then I saw something I thought I'd never see in Canada. Olives on the branch, last year's crop. It didn't matter to me that these olives were small, black, wrinkled, and inedible. I was excited just to see that the trees were bearing fruit, even if the reality of Canadian extra-virgin olive oil is still several years away.
The quantities will be small, perhaps just one litre per tree. But at least one high-profile Vancouver chef (Rob Feenie) would love to have the oil in his restaurant as the trend of eating local continues to grow. Selling Pender Island olive oil would be a small reward for Andrew. The larger payoff, both emotionally and financially, would be providing the rootstock for more and more olive groves all over this part of Canada's own Mediterranean-type region.