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Olives to savor and to cook with

Fine Cooking Issue 40
Photos, except where noted: Judi Rutz
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It’s only in the last decade that Americans have begun to appreciate olives. Gone are the days when we thought of them as green and stuffed with tired pimento slivers, as a lonely martini garnish, or as the soft, tasteless, canned black condiment most of us grew up eating (or avoiding). With so many more delicious choices now available here, olives are gaining recognition as a valuable and important food—the status they’ve held for thousands of years all over the Mediterranean basin.

Olive trees need hot, arid weather

Olive trees have been a cultivated crop for more than 6,000 years. Their birthplace, the Mediterranean, remains home to more than 90% of the world’s production.  

Olives thrive only in hot, dry climates with mild winters. The trees take 12 to 15 years to bear full crops, and they can live up to 600 years. At specialty markets, you’ll find table olives from Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Israel, and Morocco. There are newer entries, too, from olive groves in California.  

Olives are actually fruits. Like cherries, peaches, and other stone fruits, olives are botanically classified as drupes, distinguished by fleshy pulp, a single seed or pit, and an inner stone that contains the seed.  

All olives ripen from green to black, through intermediate stages of reddish, brown, and purple. Green and black olives aren’t necessarily different varieties; they’re harvested and cured for the table at all stages of ripeness.  

Olives are inedible straight from the tree. Because of their bitter component, oleurpein, olives must be cured before eating.

Lucques are French table olives with an elegant oval shape and tender flesh. Lucques are mild and buttery; they’re particularly good served with apéritifs and a dish of-salted nuts.
Picholine olives are brine-cured French olives with crunchy flesh and a salty-sweet flavor; they’re delicious with before-dinner drinks. In the U.S., picholines are sometimes packed with citric acid to preserve their color.
Niçoise olives are a French favorite, produced in the region around the French Riviera. They have a sharp, somewhat sour taste and often come packed with herbs. A classic component of salade niçoise, pitted, minced niçoise olives make a fine, full-flavored tapenade spread, too.
True Sicilian olives are large, brownish-green brine-cured olives with soft-textured and somewhat tart but mild flesh. In the U.S., “Sicilian-style” olives are produced in California and are often offered cracked or occasionally packed with chile peppers and olive oil added to their finished brine.

Brining or dry-curing makes olives delicious

While factors such as ripeness, climate, and handling all play a part, the flavor of finished olives relies mostly on the curing method. Curing not only reduces the olive fruits’ inherent bitterness, it also brings out rich olive flavors. Curing is done in one of two ways: either by brining or by dry-curing.

Brining may involve a brief soaking in an alkali solution, and then washing and fermentation in brine for as long as six months. Or if bitterness and acidity are low, it may simply involve repeated brine fermentation. Many cured olives are then finished in vinegar, wine, or oil. Garlic, herbs, spices, chiles, or citrus peel are often added to their final soaking to add additional flavors. Flavors can vary widely, so ask for a sample to see if the olives suit your taste.

Dry-curing involves rubbing and packing ripe black olives in coarse salt to leach out bitterness, followed by rinsing and then soaking in oil for the final cure and for sale. Dry-cured olives have a dry, wrinkled, pruney appearance and often a coating of olive oil. They’re usually stronger in flavor than brine-cured olives.

Dry-cured olives (also called oil-cured or salt-cured), are mostly produced in Greece and northern Africa, especially Morocco. They have a meaty texture and a slightly bitter, smoky flavor that lingers on the tongue. Oil-cured olives are easy to pit because of their moist, pliable flesh. Greek oil-cured olives tend to be milder, while French oil-cured olives have an almost whiskey-like flavor.
Manzanilla olives are pale green to green-brown olives from Spain; they’re the classic accompaniment to a glass of dry sherry, as is the custom in southern Spain. Manzanillas have crisp flesh with an oily texture and slightly smoky, rich flavor.Scott Phillips
Bella di Cerignola olives are from southern Italy along the Adriatic coast. These bright green giants have mild, sweet, dense flesh that clings to the pit. Cerignolas’ beautiful color makes them a standout for snacking or serving with drinks; they’re a good choice for those who don’t like strong-flavored olives. Black, ripened Cerignola olives are even milder in flavor than green ones.Scott Phillips
Cracked Provençal olives are brine-cured and then cracked, packed, and marinated with herbes de Provence and olive oil. Great for hors d’oeuvres, cracked Provençals have firm flesh and a deliciously mild, herbal flavor.Scott Phillips

Olive flavors span a wide range

At the market, you’ll see olives in a wide range of colors, from golden yellow, dull green, and bright green, to buff, red, purple, and black, and in many sizes depending on the variety and when they were harvested and cured. You’ll find them in jars or offered in open crocks so you can choose among all the different kinds. Finished olives are available both pitted and unpitted, cracked, slit, seasoned, and stuffed.

Olive flavors cover a range of possibilities: strong or mild, salty or vegetal; buttery or nutty; spicy or slightly bitter. They can be bittersweet or sour and even richly fruity, with overtones of prune or licorice. Keep a dish of olives on the table throughout a meal; they’re surprisingly good with full-bodied, tannic red wines like Barolo from Italy, Cahors from France, and big-style California Cabernets.  At the market, olives should be unbruised, clean, and firm (if brine-cured). Brine-cured olives should be plump, with smooth, shiny skins and moist interiors. Dry-cured olives should look meaty and not overly dry.

Always keep olives moist, either in brine or sprinkled with olive oil. Store olives in the refrigerator, but be sure to let them come to room temperature before serving. Drain brined-packed olives before serving, reserving the brine for storage, and then rinse the portion you’re going to use in water before eating or cooking with them. (If you need to make extra brine, dissolve one tablespoon coarse or kosher salt in a pint of water.) If the olives you’re serving will be sitting out for a while, dress them with a little olive oil to keep them from drying out. 

When cooking with olives, reduce the recipe’s salt, as olives will add their own salty flavors. If the olives you’ve bought taste a little bitter, toss them with oil and fresh herbs or garlic (or both) to balance their strong flavors.

Depending on their size, olives have only 5 to 20 calories each, and they have a high proportion of healthy mono-and polunsaturated fats.


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