The Extraordinary Olive
The tenacious, delicious olive has been around for more than five millennia and still surprises with its varied, subtle and sublime flavors.
Ahh, the beguiling little olive. No other fruit, not temptation’s famous apple, not even the beloved grape, has served humanity so well for so long, and in so many ways.
The olive tree, Olea europeaea, with its silvery halo of leaves and a gnarled trunk, has been cultivated for at least 5,000 years. A native of the Middle East, the long-living olive tree spread throughout the Mediterranean, establishing itself wherever the climate was favorable. It can withstand a few days of freezing temperatures, but will not thrive in hard winters. There are olive trees today in southern Europe thought to be more than 2,000 years old.
In ancient times, the olive was valued primarily for its oil, which was used as lamp fuel, as lubricant, as medicine and tonic, and to make soap. It was even used to anoint humans at birth, baptism and death, and at ascension to the priesthood and the throne. Today, we squeeze out the oil and use it in both cooking and ritual anointment, yet we value the fruit in its own right. We eat the olive neat, plunk it into martinis, grind it up for tapenade, stuff it into sausages and enjoy more than 800 varieties in too many ways to catalog. This small fruit—ranging in size from a quarter of an inch to more than two inches in length—plays a big role in many of the world’s cuisines, from Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian, Turkish, Croatian, Greek, Italian, Spanish and French to Mexican, Californian and even Chinese, where olives preserved in sugar and licorice root are eaten as snacks.
One of the olive’s most intriguing qualities is that though the oil is readily accessible—it needs only to be pressed out of the crushed raw fruit—the fruit itself is inedible unless treated to tame its bitter glucosides. Birds won’t eat olives and people have to work and wait before enjoying them.
The work that influences an olive’s final flavor and texture begins in the orchard, when the farmer first decides when to pick the fruit. All olives start out green. And those picked before they have ripened usually reach the table green with a firm texture and tangy flavor. Most black olives are picked fully ripe and their texture varies greatly depending on variety and processing. Those in between, the gold, brown, red, purple and purple-black, are picked at varying stages of ripeness. The exception is the ubiquitous California Black Olive. These olives are picked green, treated with lye to leach out the bitter compounds and then oxygenated to turn them black. Ferrous gluconate sets the color and a mild brine boosts the flavor.
Curing olives in lye is the fastest way to process an olive, removing all bitterness in about 24 hours, but many flavor nuances are leached out at the same time. Most lye-cured olives are bland, though a few (see “An Olive Sampler”) retain their varietal flavors. Other olives are cured in water or brine, which must be changed daily for about two weeks. After curing, they are returned to a salt or vinegar brine, which is often seasoned with herbs, garlic, spices or chilis. Many olives picked fully ripe are dry-cured by packing in either salt or olive oil for several weeks. Such dry-cured olives have a concentrated, meaty texture and can be mild, salty or bitter, depending on the variety and length of time they are cured.
Today, most of the world’s olives are also pasteurized to lengthen their shelf life and halt the natural fermentation that would otherwise occur, further destroying nuances of flavor and texture. A few companies, such as Barnier of France, offer a selection of unpasteurized olives. To find these olives, look for specialty shops such as The Cheese Course in Healdsburg, California, where Susan Walrobenstein is always searching for flavorful olives and offers several unpasteurized varieties.
Among Walrobenstein’s favorites is the taggiasca, an extraordinarily tasty olive from Liguria, imported by Ritrovo, a specialty company based in Seattle. The taggiasca is also used to produce sweet and golden late-harvest Ligurian olive oil, available only in years when weather cooperates.
Right: Olive butter adds moisture and elegant flavor to grilled salmon, accompanied by orzo and roasted golden beets with olives
The best way to explore the world of olives is to find a shop where a passionate proprietor chooses the best from an overwhelmingly enormous wholesale market (for online sources, see box, “An Olive Sampler”). Even many supermarkets these days have olive bars, where you can taste before you buy. Some are disappointing, offering olives of poor quality that are overwhelmed by added ingredients. The best shops, however, feature hard-to-find varieties that will expand your culinary horizons deliciously.
An Olive Sampler
There are scores of olives available in the marketplace—too many to count because a single variety is often offered under many names. You’ll find the best of them in specialty shops and delis that order directly from importers. There are also catalogs and websites that specialize in rare varieties with unique flavors.
A small selection of high-quality specialty olives can be found at the following websites:
Both pasteurized and unpasteurized olives can be shipped; when pasteurized they must be kept cool on the way so there will be added shipping costs.
Here’s a sampling of our favorites.
Arbequina: Spain. Green. Medium in size. Mildly smoky taste. Brined.
Cerignola: Sicily. Green, black. Very large. Meaty, firm flesh. Lye-cured and brined.
Cassé des Beaux: France. Green. Medium. Meaty texture. Brined. Available unpasteurized.
Chinese: China. Golden. Small to medium. Preserved in salt, sugar, honey and licorice root.
Dalmatia: Solta, Croatia. Red. Meaty. Brined.
Empeltre: Spain. Green. Medium. Marinated in sherry.
Gaeta: Italy. Purple-black. Small to medium. Mild. Usually dry-cured, sometimes brined.
Gordal: Spain. Purple-black. Medium. Meaty, fatty. Brined.
Hondrolea: Peloponnesian Peninsula, Greece. Black.
Enormous. Meaty, boldly flavored. Brined.
Kalamata: Greece. Medium. Meaty, ripe. Wide variation in quality; look for jumbo Kalamatas, with evenly purplish-black color and firm texture. Inexpensive Kalamatas can be mushy.
Lucques: France. Green. Medium. Very crisp texture.
Lye-cured and brined. Available unpasteurized.
Mt. Athos: Greece. Green. Large. Meaty, often stuffed with and marinated in citrus.
Niçoise: France. Green; purple-black. Small. Medium-firm. Brined. Available unpasteurized.
Nyons: France. Greenish-black. Medium. Soft, meaty, mildly bitter. Often dry-cured in salt, sometimes brined.
Oil-cured: France, Greece, Italy, Morocco. Black. Sizes vary. Meaty, concentrated taste and texture; bitter; some are very salty. Sometimes called dry-cured.
Picholine: French. Green. Medium. Firm. Brined.
Taggiasca: Liguria, Italy. Purple-black. Medium. Intensely
flavored with luscious, dense texture.
Umbria: Italy. Purple-black. Small. Meaty. Similar to Gaeta and Niçoise, but more intensely flavored. Brined.
Bruschetta with Fromage Blanc and Olive and Artichoke Tapenade
Tapenade is one of the classic salty condiments of southern Europe, made in one version or another virtually everywhere olives are grown. Smooth or chunky, it almost always includes brine-cured olives, garlic and anchovies. This version adds two other ingredients common to Provence and northern Italy: artichokes and walnuts.
Wine recommendation: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
For the tapenade:
- 2 large artichokes
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 anchovy fillets, drained
- 1 teaspoon green peppercorns in brine, drained
- 1 teaspoon minced lemon zest
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cup (4 ounces) picholine or cracked green olives, pitted and minced
- 2 tablespoons (2 ounces) walnut pieces, toasted and minced
- 1 tablespoon Italian parsley, minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, minced
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the bruschetta:
- 1-pound loaf of crusty country bread, cut into 3Â¼4-inch thick slices
- 6 garlic cloves, unpeeled and cut in half lengthwise
- 6 ounces fromage blanc or fresh ricotta
To prepare the tapenade, fill a large pot two-thirds full with water, add the salt and bring to a boil. Using kitchen shears, snip off the tips of the outer leaves of the artichokes. Drizzle a little of the olive oil into the center of both artichokes and place them in the water. Return the water to a boil, cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 40 minutes (depending on artichoke size, variety and age) until tender.
Meanwhile, use a mortar and pestle to grind the garlic and anchovies together to form a smooth paste. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the green peppercorn, lemon zest, juice and olive oil. Set aside.
Transfer the artichokes to a colander or strainer, rinse them under cool water, drain thoroughly and let cool. Once cool enough to handle, remove the leaves and reserve them for another use. Scrape away the choke in the center of each artichoke heart. Discard the chokes and cut the hearts into small dice.
In a medium bowl, combine the diced artichoke hearts, olives, walnuts and olive oil mixture. Add the parsley and the tarragon, and several turns of black pepper. Taste and season with salt. Let rest 30 minutes before serving. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.
To make the bruschetta, grill or toast the bread on an outdoor grill, stove-top grill or in a preheated oven broiler until it is golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a platter, rub each piece of bread on one side with cut garlic and spread on some of the cheese. Top with the tapenade and serve immediately. Serves 4.
Grilled Salmon with Olive Butter and Orzo
Olive butter is an excellent way to infuse a dish with an olive’s rich flavor. You can make it ahead and refrigerate for up to five days. It’s wonderful with this grilled salmon dish, but you’ll find other uses for it as well.
Wine recommendation: Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.
For the olive butter:
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1 small shallot, peeled
- About 18 oil-cured olives, pitted
- 1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Kosher salt, as needed
For the salmon:
- Kosher salt
- 6 ounces orzo, acini di pepe or other small seed-shaped pasta
- 1 medium (about 2 pounds) wild king salmon fillet, scaled and cut into 4 pieces of equal weight
- Ground black pepper
- Small Italian parsley sprigs for garnish
- 1/4 cup small olives, such as Niçoise or Umbria, for garnish
To prepare the olive butter, put the garlic, shallot, olives and parsley in a food processor and pulse several times until the mixture is evenly chopped. Add the butter and mustard and pulse until the mixture is smooth. Season with black pepper, taste and, if the flavors haven’t quite come together, add a pinch or two of kosher salt and pulse again briefly.
Transfer the butter to a sheet of parchment paper and shape into a log about 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Wrap tightly in the parchment and then again in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 5 days. To use, unwrap and slice into
1/4-inch coins. (Makes about 1/2 cup.)
For the salmon, heat an outdoor or stove-top grill to medium heat while you fill a medium saucepan half full with water, add a tablespoon of kosher salt and bring to a boil. When the water boils, add the pasta, stir and cook according to package directions until just tender. Drain thoroughly (do not rinse), transfer to a warm bowl and toss with 2 tablespoons of the olive butter. Cover with a tea towel to keep warm.
Meanwhile, season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper and grill skin side up for 8 minutes, rotating once to mark. Turn the salmon over and grill (2 to 3 minutes for a 1-inch fillet, longer if the fish is thicker) until it is just cooked through. Just before removing the salmon from the grill, top each piece with a round of olive butter.
Divide the pasta among four warm plates and set a salmon fillet on top, skin side down. Top each piece of salmon with another thin round of olive butter, garnish with olives and parsley, and serve immediately with Golden Roasted Beets with Olives. Serves 4.
Roasted Golden Beets with Olives
The sweetness of beets is flattered by quality olives.
- 1 pound beets, preferably golden, washed
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons taggiasca olives or oil-cured black olives of choice, pitted
- Zest of 1 lemon, grated
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh Italian parsley
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper in a mill
Preheat the oven to 350F. Put the beets in a shallow baking dish, drizzle with just enough (about 1 teaspoon) olive oil to coat them and roast about 45 minutes or until they are tender. Set the beets aside to cool slightly, then remove the skins using your fingers.
Cut the beets into wedges, set them in a serving bowl and toss with olives, lemon zest, parsley and remaining olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm until ready to serve. Serves 4.
For more olive-based recipes, pick up the August issue of Wine Enthusiast at your local newsstand.
Published on August 1, 2002