Why Olives are Anything but the Pits

Mixed green, red and purple olives

Considered sacred since before Biblical times, the olive tree remains treasured. The unique flavor of its fruit is surprisingly versatile. It pairs amicably with sweet flavors (oranges, dates, tomatoes, caramelized onions, fennel), salty foods (capers, feta cheese, anchovies, cured meats), and all kinds of nuts, dairy and fresh herbs. It can provide a punchy blast of contrasting flavor, or be the centerpiece of dishes like tapenade, muffuletta or puttanesca.

Green and black olives are the same fruit. Except for a few outliers, a green olive is simply an unripe black olive. All are bitter and inedible when picked, so they’re cured and fermented using brine, salt and/or lye. Like with wine, when you eat an olive, you’re tasting both the fruit and how it was handled.

Fun Facts About Olives

  • The average olive tree’s lifespan is between 300 and 600 years. Today, some fruit-producing olive trees are more than 2,000 years old and still going strong.
  • Olives, like wine grapes, thrive in a wide range of soil conditions, which accounts in part for their complexity.
  • An olive branch appears on the flags of five U.S. states, several countries and the United Nations, where it symbolizes peace.
  • Jasmine and lilac are in same biological family as olives, Oleaceae.
  • Spain produces nearly half of the world’s olive oil. Italy is the next largest producer.
A Well-Oiled Vineyard

Pair It

“I like low-alcohol, high-acid wines with green or black olives,” says Joe Campanale, the wine director and partner at Celestine and owner of Fausto in Brooklyn, New York. “The high acidity cuts through the fat of the olive and stands up to the olive’s acidity. Even better if it’s a coastal wine that has some of its own natural saltiness. Wines from Santorini, Corsica, Liguria and coastal Croatia come to mind.”

Many wines that exhibit olive notes, like Sagrantino, Syrah from Côte-Rôtie and some Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, are best reserved for rich, cooked dishes like pastas and braises, says Campanale.

Published on February 1, 2018
Topics: How to Pair
About the Author
Nils Bernstein
Contributing Editor, Food

A fan of sweet wines, sour beers, and old-school Rioja, Bernstein is an exhaustive traveler in search of new and unsung chefs and restaurants, innovative wine and food pairings, and eating and drinking at the source. In addition to Wine Enthusiast, Bernstein has written for Bon Appetit, Men’s Journal, New York Times, Men’s Fitness, Hemispheres, and Kinfolk, among others.

Email: nbernstein@wineenthusiast.net

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