THE RIGHT BRINE: Vicksburg couple explains how olive trees help them tap their family roots

Published 11:30 am Monday, May 16, 2016

Just steps outside of Mary and Dr. Mo Qasim Lee Street townhouse lies a courtyard garden fitted with all the makings of a fantastic salad.

But a look beyond the kale, blueberries and lemons will show one massive, unusual tree that covers much of the courtyard, an olive tree.

“We wanted an olive tree to reflect Mo’s Mediterranean background, so we searched the Internet for how-to information and to find a tree source,” Mary said. Olives are of major agricultural importance in the region as the source of olive oil.

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Mississippi isn’t known for its olive trees, which tend to like warm, dry climates. The Qasims were told a young olive tree would not survive temperatures below 15 degrees and even if it did survive, there would be no olives because of the humidity.

Still, they had to give it a shot. They selected a Frantoio cultivar for two reasons: first, the tree is self-pollinating, and the couple did not have room for two trees in their courtyard; and second, the Frantoio came recommended for its toughness.

“The tree arrived 15 years ago with a stem not much bigger around that my little finger plus one blossom that became an olive,” Mary said.

The first winter, the temperature dropped below 15 degrees a few times, and the Qasims sprayed the tree with water and coddled it in a quilt that was also sprayed with water. The tree lost its leaves, and Mary, a master gardner, said she spent the spring rubbing the tree down with lotion and olive oil.

“The quilt went by the wayside after the first winter when the tree began maintaining its leaves year round,” she said. “I would have been really discouraged if I’d known that olives are evergreen!”

Despite warnings that olives would not grow in the Mississippi humidity, the fruits of the Qasims labor began to show.

“About the fourth year, one branch had a few olives,” Mary said. “Olive production gradually increased, with olives appearing on some branches but not others. Two years ago, we brined about two thirds of the crop: 88 quarts plus that brined by our two daughters.”

It was raining olives. Mo said he would call his wife over near the tree, and for fun he would shake a branch, sending them both running as olives poured down.

Mary explained olive trees tend to vary between heavy and light olive-bearing years.

“Pruning of commercially-producing trees is done to increase production on wood grown during the previous year,” she said. “We haven’t pruned our tree because we enjoy seeing it grow.”

Olives are first green, then turn yellowish as they ripen and black when ripe and full of oil, Mary said.

“They are harvested in fall and early winter,” she said. “Olives are incredibly bitter as they come off the tree.”

The fastest methods and most common commercial treatments employ lye during at least part of the curing, which the Qasims said they avoid.

“Alternative salt brine method — used most in Mediterranean brining — takes several weeks,” Mary said. “We salt brined with taste-determined additives, varying flavors with garlic, dill, hot pepper, bay leaf and lemon and topped with olive oil.”

Most all of the ingredients used in the Qasims’ brining process come from their garden.

Although Mo has fond memories of his grandmother pressing olives for olive oil back in the Middle East, he and his wife use theirs as table olives, typically pairing them with bread.

Mo explained small types of olives are used in making olive oil and larger olives are used as table olives. The Frantoio is a medium-sized olive, and it isn’t large enough to pit and stuff like many commercial olives.

Mary said nurseries selling olive trees and state universities and their extension services in California and Texas offer a lot of information about the trees. Types, names of olives, growing olives in pots, growing fruitless olive trees, pruning, cultural associations and religious significances, ages of ancient olive trees are all examples of additional information that can be found online, she added.

“The important thing is that if you have always wanted an olive tree, go ahead, find one, baby it during its first year — or bring it inside in a well-drained pot — and enjoy it.”