It’s a shame to take the olive for granted when there’s so much variety!
I love olives. Green, black, stuffed, unstuffed, in salads, or plain. I only thought about the history of this fabulous fruit after a small gathering at a friend’s home not long ago. My friend, the historian, told us that the reason we use olive branches as a sign of peace is that it takes so long to grow olive trees that can bear edible fruit. For a couple of varieties (Arbequina and Koroneiki) it takes 3 years but for most varieties it takes 5-12 years! The tree itself has been around for millions of years. Ancient written records left in tombs and on stone tablets suggest that we’ve been harvesting olives for about 7,000 years – that’s before the Bronze Age!
Today, there are enough varieties of olives to match just about any palate—even those that are hard to satisfy. Which brings to mind an article I read in Epicurious where the writer, contemplating the joy of olives, asks us to “think outside the jar.” Or “can,” as it may be.
By my own count, there are about 15 truly top of the line varieties of the delicious fruit. And very much like wine, some olive flavors are robust to the taste—it all depends on how adventurous you want to be. Among olive varieties I’ve heard of or experienced: Alfonso, Amfissa, Beldi, Castelvetrano (one of my favorites), Cerignola, Frantoio, Gaeta, Gordal, Kalamatas, Leccino, Manzanilla, Mission, Niçoise, Nyon, and Picual. But there are literally dozens more which, depending on the cuisine and location, can be extremely popular to no one else but the locals.
No matter the variety, you can’t eat raw olives–they’re way too bitter. Technically, I suppose you COULD, but the vast majority of people (myself included) prefer olives that are cured. I’ve never met anyone that actually tried an uncured olive and ever wanted to repeat the experience! Most commercial olives are picked by machine–which leads people to believe that all olives ripen on the tree at the same rate. Not true!
This is one food that can range from very simple and elegant (like the noble Mission) to the truly exotic (like Nyon). And the most significant difference among the varieties is not the plant itself, but the ripeness at the time they are picked and cured. Highest quality olives are picked, sorted and even stuffed by hand. That’s why some jars of olives can be quite pricey.
There are all kinds of ways to cure olives: by oil, water, or just laid out to dry. The most common method of curing is using a lye solution and then a saltwater brine. The process is intended to draw out the bitterness and start fermentation, which leaves many varieties with a briny (or salty) flavoring. Ripe olives that are lye-cured and then exposed to oxygen produces a black, smooth, mild tasting olive. Ones that aren’t oxidized stay green.
Some specialty varieties are cured only lightly in lye and then washed in water. Since these are unfermented, they tend to be the sweetest tasting olives; slightly buttery. Dry-curing with salt only is unique to Morocco. The salt pulls out the bitterness and leaves a wrinkly olive super packed with flavor. These are called Beldi olives, and they are absolutely fabulous in salads.
True olive enthusiasts look for olives that are unpitted. Flavors stay more intact when the skin isn’t broken so you’ll find gourmet varieties and preparations unpitted. There’s a reason for this. Pitted olives, though more convenient, soften and take on more of the brine flavor that they’re sitting in.
Unopened jarred and canned olives can keep for months. But, if you want to truly enjoy a variety without having to purchase a lot of any one type, try buying them from the fresh olive bar at the market. If you do, remember that olives should be stored mostly submerged in brine. If there’s not a lot of brine in the bin they will dry out so watch for the bin to have enough brine. Spoon some extra brine into your container and store them that way until you’re ready to eat them. Keep them refrigerated, and they can stay for 2-3 weeks.
Check out my video for another perspective on bringing olives into your next gathering.