Arbequina is a word not likely familiar to most Florida home gardeners, but John and Laurel Zukley are justifiably proud of their three flourishing Arbequina olive trees in Inverness.
The trees welcome visitors to the home, their silvery gray foliage shimmering in the summer breezes over distinctive gnarled trunks.
The Zukleys are retired and live on East Barco Terrace have produced multiple jars of olives for eating, plus gallons of olive oil for other uses from the trees purchased at a small nursery in Dunnellon.
They also enjoy the fruits of their labors with bushels of avocados from a mature avocado tree, fresh pineapple, guavas, lemon grass (used liberally in Asian dishes) and ginger root from their garden.
Olive trees are know for their longevity, so the Zukleys can expect many more years of cultivating.
This ancient olive tree of Vouves, located on the Greek island of Crete, is one of seven olive trees in the Mediterranean believed to be at least 2,000 to 3,000 years old, according to the Nature Network, www.mnn.com/the Nature Network.
Although its exact age cannot be verified, the olive tree of Vouves might be the oldest among them, estimated at over 3,000 years old. It still produces olives and they are highly prized.
Curing olives for consumption is not a simple task, the Zukleys agreed. After harvesting the olives, the fruit must be kept in jars of water for about a month, changing the water daily, then put in a special brine for further ripening up to two months prior to eating the olives.
“As an owner of olive trees, you have a number of choices to turn olives on a tree into something good!” John said.
“First, you need to choose a recipe, as that will determine the ripeness of the olives. All olives go from green to nearly black, and can be made eatable at any stage. We have preferred the more ripe dark olives after many trials. All olives come off the trees hard like a golf ball, and cannot be eaten that way. They must be softened up.”
During a recent visit with the Zukleys, we sampled the brined olives. They were very tasty, though smaller in size than the traditional commercial fruit sold in supermarkets.
John Zukley also demonstrated a wooden press he designed and constructed to extract the oil from the olives — a work in progress.
He offered the following recipe for curing your own olives:
“The following is for 2 gallons of olives. Make a brine solution by adding 1 pound (1 1/2 cups) salt to 1 gallon of cool water, stir to dissolve salt. Add 4 cups — 1 quart — of red wine vinegar to the brine solution. Put half of the solution into 2 each gallon jars.
“Add the olives that were prepared and discussed above. Add a quarter inch of olive oil to cover the olives in each jar. Close the jar with a tight-fitting lid and leave alone for another 30 days or more. After a month, start testing the flavor. When you like what you have, the olives are ready to eat. They will keep for up to a year that way. Even longer if kept in a refrigerator.
“Note that the olive oil layer may congeal if kept in the refrigerator. That is no problem, just allow the olives to warm up to room temperature, and the oil will return to a liquid state. There will be a slight oil coating on the olives, and we think this enhances the eating experience.”
John said that “hands down, the Kalamata (style) olives were the favorite” last Christmas when he served them with wine and cheese to his visiting sons, John, Daniel, David and Aaron.
“To make Kalamata-style olives, use mature, fully colored, dark purplish black olives. We pick the dark ones, and then wait for the green olives to mature — turn dark — and then make another batch.
“Rinse the olives and remove twigs, leaves and anything else that does not belong. Then we proceed with the water bath soaking process as described above for at least 30 days to soften the olives and allow the bitterness to be blanched out with the water. Now you are ready to start to pickling process.”
The Zukleys are not only avid and creative gardeners, they can draw on a lifetime of world travel to enhance their retirement hobbies.
Laurel Zukley is a St. Petersburg native and is no stranger to growing produce. Her family owned the O’Berry Orange Groves in the St. Petersburg area when she was growing up.
Her husband is a retired engineer who traveled to many far-flung sites for various major construction companies, including New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Peru and Argentina, to name just some of the family’s moves over the years.
The couple met while both were attending the University of Florida in Gainesville. She also volunteers at an elementary school, along with assisting with the gardening.
They moved to Inverness in 2004 from their most recent home in North Dakota.
Natural food goodness is also part of the Zukleys meal repertoire and they grind their own grain for flour and use a stone grinder for making corn meal — a gallon at a time.
Growing olives in Florida is not new. The Spanish first introduced olive trees to the state in the 1700s and, according to the Florida Farm Bureau, there are now more than 400 acres of olive trees in the Sunshine State, ranging from commercial growers with more than 20 acres to backyard hobbyists.