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September 24, 2004 > Mission San Jose's Fourth Annual Olive Festival

Mission San Jose's Fourth Annual Olive Festival

by Praveena Raman

On Saturday October 2nd Mission San Jose Chamber of Commerce will be holding its 4th annual Olive festival. According to chamber member Lisa Stambaugh, the primary objective of the festival is to bring the community together and at the same time highlight something uniquely local, the tradition of growing olives in the area.

The olive tree is one of the oldest known cultivated trees in the world. It was grown in Crete around 3000 BC and spread to the Mediterranean regions of Africa and southern Europe by Phoenicians. According to historical records olives were being used by Egyptians in 2000 BC and also by Greeks and Romans. The word olive evolved from the Greek elaiwa to elia to maslina to olajbogyo to oliva and finally, olive.

Olive oil has been used for centuries in different religions and cultures both for its medicinal qualities and also for special ceremonies. The Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers applied olive oil on their bodies while in Christian churches the oil in the baptism ceremony that is used for anointment is often olive oil. Greeks have used this oil to anoint their kings and winning athletes and in some cultures they use it to anoint the dead.

As the olive tree has been cultivated for thousands of years it has been hard to trace the tree's heritage. Recent research, using gene-mapping techniques, is helping to trace the olive family tree. In the Middle East there are shrub like "feral" olives that represent the original stock from which olives have descended. According to Greek mythology Athens was named for the Goddess Athena who brought the olive to the Greeks as a gift. Zeus had promised to give Attica (a portion of what is now known as Greece) to the god or goddess who made the most useful invention. Athena's gift of the olive, useful for light, heat, food, medicine and perfume was picked as a more peaceful invention than Poseidon's horse - touted as a rapid and powerful instrument of war. Athena planted the original olive tree on a rocky hill which we know today as the Acropolis. The olive tree that grows there today is said to have come from the roots of the original tree.

The olives on Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are only 2000 years old, quite young compared to the long ancient history of the domestication of olives. In the past several hundred years, olives have spread to North and South America, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. The olive tree has inspired artists, like - Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne and Van Gogh, who tried to capture the emerald and silver hues of the leaves shimmering against an azure Mediterranean sky or the gnarled and twisted branches that withstand the ages. In many cultures olive branches also symbolizes peace, longevity, fertility, maturity, wealth and prosperity.

As Franciscan priests came to California and established Missions they also brought with them olives. The first olive trees were planted in Southern California but most of the older groves are now present mainly in Northern California. Through the years, olive trees have been planted in this state in waves as interests in olives and its oil peaked. Olive groves in Fremont flourished with the establishment of Mission San Jose. It has also been intertwined with the history of the wineries. Olive trees were grown on the estates of Palmdale, Linda Vista and Weibel. In 1908, olive oil was crushed on the Linda Vista estates in Mission San Jose much after the McIver Wineries had closed on the same property.

The celebration of the different uses of the olive trees and the building of community through olive festivals has always been popular in Europe but are now present worldwide. For the past three years, the Mission San Jose District of Fremont has been organizing this festival to celebrate the history of olives in Fremont and for community building. "It is a fun filled event," says Lisa Stambaugh. "Besides vendor booths it has activites for kids like face painting and also a stage with local talent and music all day."

In the past, the festival has showcased a variety of cultures such as Polynesian dancers. Tables and chairs make the stage area an inviting place to relax after visiting the different vendor booths at the festival. A variety of vendors will be selling not only olives, olive oil and its various products like soap but also many arts and craft items. A variety of food vendors will also be present at the festival.

Students of Alsion Montessori School at Washington Boulevard will be one of the many community organizations participating in this festival. Earlier this year science teacher Anu Suresh was awarded a grant by the National Science Teachers Associations that will be used towards an integrated science program used in the school. This program uses a small olive press to demonstrate basic science concepts. Students have harvested olives form nearby groves of vintage olive trees, pressed the oil, bottled it and sold it at the olive festival in previous years. This year they also hope to craft ceramic containers for the oil.

For a fun filled local event visit the Olive Festival on Saturday, October 2, from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, behind the historic Old Mission San Jose Museum in Fremont California. More information can be found at or by calling 510-873-7701 or

The Alameda County Library has some books on Olives. A few suggested titles are:

  1. The olive in California : history of an immigrant tree by Judith M. Taylor. Berkeley, Calif. Ten Speed Press, c2000

  2. Olives : life and lore of the noble fruit by Mort Rosenblum. New York : North Point Press, 1996

  3. The olive and the caper : adventures in Greek cooking / by Susanna Hofman ; in collaboration with Victoria Wise. New York : Workman, c2004

  4. The olive farm : a memoir of life, love, and olive oil in the south of France / Carol Drinkwater. Woodstock [N.Y.] : Overlook Press, c2001

  5. Olives, anchovies, and capers : the secret ingredients of Mediterranean cooking / by Georgeanne Brennan ; photographs by Leigh Beisch. San Francisco : Chronicle Books, c2001
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