It’s a fruit, not a vegetable. If you pick it raw, directly off the tree, you’ll most likely spit it out. Varieties include Lugano, Domat, Picholine and Arbequina. Can you name the fruit? If Kalamata is added to the list, the correct answer of “olive” may easily slip off your tongue. If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting Italian olive groves and picking fresh olives right off the tree, here’s my advice: Visit, yes. Pick and eat, no. Just-picked olives are extremely bitter.
Various curing processes are needed to turn the inedible fruit into the delicious salty morsels we have come to love. In recent years, more attention has been given to the oil that is pressed from these green and black gems than to the fruit itself. But olives themselves are a great addition to a variety of dishes. They’re especially useful in creating quick and easy appetizers, something we all look for during the coming holiday season.
KNOW YOUR DRUPES
Learn a little about olives before you start selecting them for your appetizer recipes. The olive is a drupe; that is, a fruit with skin, meat inside and a single stone. Most olives start out green and darken as they mature. However, this does not mean that green olives are never considered ripe. Green olives are called “green ripe” when they reach full size but have not begun to change color. The flesh is firm, softening as it changes color on the tree. And those canned black olives that grace everything from your favorite pizza to your mother’s seven-layer salad? Canned black olives don’t start out black at all. They are harvested green and unripe, then lye-cured to trigger an oxidation process, turning the fruit black.
Once olives are picked, they are cured using a variety of methods. Olives can be cured in water, oil or lye. They can also be brined or dry-cured, usually with salt. Lye curing, invented in Spain, is the most cost-effective method. It also produces the least flavorful olive. The raw olives are placed in alkaline lye, which turns them black. Water curing is a traditional method of preparing olives but has taken a back seat to the faster lye cure. Water curing allows olives to naturally soak out their bitterness over a period of weeks or months while they are submerged in fresh water or a seasoned salted brine. Brine curing not only removes the olive’s natural bitterness, it also adds flavor. Kalamata olives often are cured in a red wine vinegar brine that gives them their distinct flavor. Dry-cured olives are rubbed with salt and then left to cure for weeks or months. The salt pulls out the moisture from the olives, removing the olive’s bitterness. The salt then is removed. These olives often are coated in olive oil after curing. Known for an intense flavor, dry-cured olives make a good choice for garnish on a charcuterie and cheese board.
It is important to select the right olives for the recipe you are preparing. Making a tapenade spread? Try meaty Kalamatas or Cerignolas. Are the olives going to be served warm? Select a firmer olive like a Niçoise or Arbequino. Steven Rawson, deli manager of Glorioso’s on Brady St., recommends Cerignola olives to create a quick platter. “Cerignolas are great for an olive mixture because of the various colors available,” he explained. The green Cerignola is picked raw and then brined. Fully tree-ripened Cerignolas are black. The red version is the brined green olive with food coloring added. The variety of olive, when it is picked and the curing method used all make a difference. The following varieties are frequently found in grocery store olive bars.
Arbequina: Arbequina olives are tiny and light brown in color. Grown mainly in the Aragon and Catalonia regions of Spain, the olive is eaten but also used in Spanish olive oil.
Cerignola: This large, meaty olive originated in the Italian province of Puglia and is named for the town of Cerignola. A popular table olive, Cerignolas are sold as green-ripe, black or red.
Gaeta: Purple-brown in color, the Gaeta olive comes from the Italian district of the same name. These soft-fleshed olives are cured in a water brine and have a slight citrus taste. Traditionally, these small olives are served tossed in extra-virgin olive oil flavored with fresh rosemary sprigs .
Kalamata: These smooth-skinned black olives originated in Kalamata, Greece, where they are used as a table olive. The soft black olive is brined in red wine vinegar and often sold without pits, making them a great choice for olive tapenade spreads.
Moroccan dry-cured olives: Morocco produces a large variety of olives but is best known for dry-cured. It is dry-cured in salt and resembles a small prune.
Niçoise: French Niçoise olives are harvested when they are fully ripe and black. Because of their small size, they are seldom sold pitted and are often packed in olive oil with dried herbs. Niçoise olives are a must ingredient in the classic Niçoise salad and Provençal-style anchovy and onion pizza called a pissalaiere.
Picholine: These small French green olives have a light salty flavor. Picholines are often sold in jars and used for garnish in cocktails and served on relish trays. Olive bars in grocery stores make shopping a snap. Glorioso’s offers between eight and 10 varieties of olives in its deli area, in addition to various premade olive salads. Groppi’s in Bay View is also a good destination, and larger grocery stores offer olive bars. For the holidays, whether you make an aromatic tapenade, a citrus-laced topping for your favorite briny cheese or an easy mix of colorful favorites, olives are an easy go-to ingredient.
Fruit is not harvested from olive trees until they are 15 years old. And these trees grow to be very, very old. The average olive tree is between 300 and 600 years. And the oldest? That would be 2,000 years old. The olive branch is a symbol of peace. It can be found on the flags of seven nations, four U.S. states and the United Nations. Think Italy grows the most olives in the world? Think again. Spain holds that title, producing over 20% of the world’s olive crop. Italy comes in a close second at 18%. And California, the U.S. state that grows the most olives? It’s not even in the top 10 olive-producing areas, having less than 40,000 acres of olive trees. Residents of Crete have the highest consumption of olive oil per person and the lowest death rate from heart-related diseases.
Large trees produce an average of 300 to 400 pounds of olives annually. One hundred pounds of olives produces approximately 8 liters of oil.
Terri Milligan is a professional chef and cooking instructor who lives in Door County. Contact her through her website.