Tag Archives: olives

Make a resolution, pay attention to your olives!

Don't take olives for granted!

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.


4th of July Party? How about a tasty recipe for marinated olives and feta?

Marinated Olives and Feta

Sophisticated but incredibly easy: smash some olives, crush a bit of garlic, shred some bread, and you’re good to go!

Want to bring something different to your 4th of July party that DOESN’T need refrigeration or special care? A while back, I found something genuinely fabulous in my favorite place to find fabulous things – Bon Appétit Magazine. It’s a perfect recipe for things like 4th of July parties where light, savory snacks with friends really hit the spot.

There’s only one part of this recipe that needs a bit more explanation – smashing olives and crushing the garlic. I know that there are all sorts of ways to do this, but my video gives you some easy ways that work for me. The rest is that simple.


  • 4-5 ounces of drained green (I prefer Castelvetranos for their flavor) unpitted olives
  • 3 medium-sized cloves of garlic
  • 1 lemon
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil – essential to get the “good stuff” for this recipe.
  • ½ tsp red pepper flakes
  • 3-4 ounces of crumbly feta cheese. I use President Cheese.
  • 1 loaf of crusty bread


  1. Preheat oven to 400-degrees F
  2. Rip up your bread into bite-sized pieces and place them on a baking sheet. When the oven is ready, bake the pieces of bread for 5-8 minutes, or just long enough to make the them a bit crispy and golden.
  3. Lightly smash (by pressing the side of the knife blade directly on top) the olives to just break apart the skin and flatten slightly.
  4. Smash (using the same technique as for the olives – you don’t want them completely flat!) and peel 3 cloves of garlic.
  5. Use a vegetable peeler (this will give you nice wide strips) to peel the zest from the lemon. Remember – only the yellow, not the white which will be bitter.
  6. Place lemon peel, smashed olives, crushed garlic, ½ cup of good Extra Virgin olive oil, and ½ tsp of red pepper flakes into a small saucepan over med-low heat. Swirl every so often and cook for about 5-7 minutes, or until the garlic is golden around the edges.
  7. Crumble feta cheese into a shallow serving bowl.
  8. Pour the olive oil mixture over the feta and let it sit at least 10 minutes. Longer if possible, perhaps an hour or more, before serving.
  9. Serve together with your crisped bread pieces.

You can always double or treble this recipe for a larger crowd.

Some last DO’s and DON’Ts – DO remind your guests that the olives are unpitted, but DON’T worry about letting this sit out for as long as your guests are nibbling. It will go fast!  A Negroni is the perfect adult beverage to accompany this appetizer.

Happy 4th of July, America!

How to pick olive oil – read the labels!

olive oil fran berger

Want a great olive oil? Here are 6 tips for reading labels and looking for signs.

I went to dinner at one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Beverly Hills with a group of friends. My history buff friend was there. I told you that he’s never without some interesting anecdote or interesting factoid. He calls it an occupational hazard of being a university professor.

Well, this time we were commenting on the olive oil that the chef used; a stand-out flavor that made my Braciole di Manzo (beef rolls with prosciutto and tomato sauce) scream out amo l’italiano! (I love Italian!) In a break in the conversation, our history buff told us that the reason we use olive branches as a sign of peace is that it takes several years to grow an olive tree mature enough to produce olives. During war, ancient armies went straight to the olive tree groves and burned them down.

It takes years to produce a good crop and decades to form a legacy of taste. That’s why good chefs do not fiddle with cheap olive oil. It just doesn’t happen.

I love olive oil. It’s great to cook with – sautés, sauces, salads, even just for dipping great bread – not just for Italian food, but for almost any dish you can imagine where you want to add that wonderful and timeless flavor. And like many of my friends who are chefs, I am a little picky when it comes to selecting my bottle of olive oil.

There are big differences in brands, and it’s actually easy to tell which ones are better – if you know what to look for! And just like wine, you just need to know how to read the label:

  1. ‘Extra Virgin’ is the highest quality given to olive oil – it means it’s unrefined, free of chemicals and other ‘defects’ like rancidity and never treated with heat. There’s still quality variations within ‘extra virgin’ but it’s the best way for an overall guarantee of purity.
  2. My recommendation, if true flavor is what you want, then stay away from any bottles of olive oil that say “light.” Oil is always 100% fat – it can NEVER be “light.” What the label really means is that the oil has been distilled and treated in such a way that strips away the true odor and color of olive oil. If all you need for your recipe is a common cooking oil, then buy an inexpensive neutral oil like peanut or grapeseed.
  3. If the bottle is inexpensive and still labeled ‘Product of Italy’ then there’s a pretty good chance that the olives weren’t grown or pressed in Italy. The label may mean that’s where the product was placed in the bottle – which is a whole other thing, right? They can still claim it’s a ‘product of Italy’ if it was only bottled there.  So, the oil could come from just about anywhere. Look carefully on the back of the label for “IT” (Italy) or “GR” (Greece) or “SP” (Spain) as the source of the olives.  If you can, buy one that comes from one farm or collective but at the very least from one country.
  4. Not all great olive oil comes from Italy. Some of it comes from California. One hint: if the oil comes from somewhere that also produces good wine, then there’s a good possibility they have great olive oil too!
  5. Let’s end an old fable right now: just because the olive oil is darker and greener doesn’t mean it’s a higher quality oil. Some very high quality olive oil is light yellow. So, color doesn’t really matter. Like wine, good olive oil has a great aroma and taste. It all depends on what you like personally.
  6. One thing that is not a fable: good olive oil never come in a clear plastic or clear glass bottle. Ever. The ‘good stuff’ usually comes in an opaque or dark glass, or metal. The reason is that good olive oil goes bad fairly quickly. Exposure to light and heat speeds up that process.

One last point, good olive oil doesn’t HAVE to be used with Italian food. Find a flavor you like for the dish you want to prepare – could be continental, Americano, or even Asian – and love it!