[FoRK] Caltech: Olive Walk Olive Oil

Rohit Khare <rkhare at gmail.com> on Sat Apr 28 09:22:02 PDT 2007

Bittersweet, from someone hospitalized for debilitating asthma from
latent allergies to olive pollen when I got my Lloyd House room on the
Walk... :)

>From the Los Angeles Times

Caltech branches into … olive oil
The Pit Expulsion Lab? Students will bottle the fruit from campus'
copious trees.
By Larry Gordon
Times Staff Writer

April 28, 2007

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

"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

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

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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