If you’re an American, your first olive probably was black as night and came out of a brown water drained off the can. Maybe they appeared sliced on your pizza or nachos or perhaps you ate them off your finger tip which fit so nicely into that mechanically inserted hole. Now, you’re grown up and enjoy something a whole lot better. Fortunately, nowadays there are plenty of bulk olive bars in just about every grocery store, a sign those canned atrocities just aren’t good enough.
Variety is the spice of life
Have you walked by an olive bar or noticed jars of curiously colored olives in specialty markets and wondered what makes each of them so different? These little fruits are varied indeed and they are much like wine. It starts with the base of grape variety and how the grapes are fermented turns them into wine. In an olives case, it’s the curing process (fermentation) that transforms them into something edible and downright delicious.
A raw olive off the tree is horribly unappealing. It’s bitter. They have high oil content which gives them that wonderful mouthfeel when you chew one. There are a handful of methods to pull out the natural bitterness and soften the flavor. Salt is the best way to do it without sacrificing texture and taste but it takes considerable time. This salt curing process is why after a night of olive binging or too many dirty martinis your pants feel tight and rings don’t fit on your fingers. Water can do the trick of removing bitterness but it’s hugely time-consuming as the water must be changed at very regular intervals. The alkaline solution known as lye is widely used among large-scale commercial producers but it results in an olive that’s notably devoid of flavor. It even has a bit of a chemical aftertaste, and it is really a crime to do this to an innocent little fresh olive.
Spain is far and away the largest olive producer. About 90% of olives are grown strictly for oil production. The other 10% goes into table olive production. The trees are finicky about where they grow. They like a Mediterranean climate. These trees are slow growing. The wood is very dense and rare to find (seriously, why on earth would you cut down an olive tree anyway?) but if you can locate some exotic olive wood items, grab them! The wood makes for a beautiful cheese board, salad bowl, cutting block and even furniture.
Green or black or somewhere in between
The color of the olive indicates the level of ripeness and that’s it. Eventually, every olive will turn black if you leave it on the tree long enough. At any given time during the harvest, you can see olives on the tree running the gamut of hues from vibrant green, olive, blushing pink, mauve, cherry red, purple and black. Generally, you will find green olives to be meatier. Air needs to be kept out of the curing process or they will oxidize and turn dark brown or black. Green olives are more firm and dense than softer fully ripe black olives.
What about those black olives in the can?
The canned black “California” olive is forced and almost entirely flavorless. They are pumped with oxygen to make them a uniform black color then cured with lye. The spam of the olive world. Let’s just not talk about it. Instead, let’s look at some superior, common table olives.
This is the Greek style olive and it is unmistakeable. Typically they are allowed to ripen on the tree and not picked while still green. These olives have a very strong distinct flavor that comes from the red wine vinegar brine and a distinct almond shape with a purple black color. They can be tricky to pair with wine due to the vinegar brine. These olives shine in a puttanesca recipe.
This the famous little salad olive (salad Niçoise) is well-known for southern France dishes like tapenade. It’s a bit assertive as it should be. No one likes a bland olive spread. A small olive with a big pit.
These Spanish style olives are what we consider the color olive. Brownish green and on the small side with a hint of a smoky almond flavor. You usually see these stuffed with something - garlic, pimento or an almond. There could be some floating around in your martini.
These will standout in the lineup. Shriveled from the dry cure then packed in olive oil. They are jet black and shiny, deliciously salty and need a spot on your cheese board. French olive fans consider these the best the country has to offer.
These are giant green olives, firm and plump. “Gordo” is Spanish for fat. We say fat with love for these big beauties. They have a lower oil content than their more petite relatives so it’s strictly produced for eating vs. oil production.
A small buttery Spanish olive mainly used for oil production but is tasty as an eating olive. Originally grown in Catalonia, it is the most commonly planted olive tree in the U.S. Residential growers enjoy these smaller trees that can produce minimally 20 lbs. of fruit per year.
This is a dry salt cured Italian deep purple olive. Considered the black pearl of Italian olives this one is a great choice if you’re looking to cook with your olives. Think salt cod and potato casserole, chicken with olives, etc.
What’s all this about an olive branch?
The term, “extending an olive branch” has been a term used to represent an offer of peace or reconciliation. It has a Biblical origin. It comes from the Book of Genesis. A dove brought a branch back to the ark and delivered it to Noah as a sign that the flood was receding. In ancient Greek and Roman times, the branches were used as a symbol of wartime surrender. This is believed to be because the trees are so slow growing and people could not take the time to plant and nurture them. These days I may just offer to buy you a dirty martini.