The fall and winter culinary season is in full swing at the Cooper household and holiday dinners just wouldn’t be the same without seeing the small ones in our family take black-pitted olives and place them on their fingertips like little puppets or decorations. Each olive meets its demise, one bite at a time. This routine can repeat itself several times if the adults around the table or buffet line aren’t vigilant.
There’s something appealing about those salty, slightly tart orbs of deliciousness that delight child and adult alike. There are many types of olives that are now readily available. Just in the last week, I’ve had medium-sized green olives stuffed with pimento (a sweet red pepper variety) as an appetizer, as well as finding olive slices inside some delicious green-corn tamale several days later.
I was raised in southeast Arizona where olive trees were fairly common. Most were used for ornamental purposes, although the fruit that was produced could be cured for eating. Olive trees do quite well in arid areas, as evidenced with their ancient history in the Mediterranean.
The trees tend to be somewhat compact, casting only moderate shade, but needing only moderate care. They do produce fruit that will eventually drop if not harvested, but the amount from an average tree is not so much that it’s a large burden. Even so, what does drop needs to be cleaned up as it will attract olive fruit flies and other undesirables. Even though olives have a much lower sugar content than fruits from orchard trees, the olive tree has its own list of “bad guys” that it will attract and sustain.
I remember as a young man being mystified with the olives I saw on the trees and the ground and trying to correspond those hard and bitter objects with the tasty jarred or canned olives that we enjoyed eating. I wrongly concluded that the olives I saw were some kind of inedible variety, and the ones from the grocery store were a special agricultural type.
However I’ve learned that no matter what type of olive, it cannot be freshly picked and consumed. It’s too bitter to eat due to the oleuropein that is plentiful in the uncured flesh of the olive. The fruit must be cured to make the olive palatable by leaching out or reducing the quantity of oleuropein. Ideally, curing should also result in an olive that possesses a desirable texture, firmness, and color. The fruit that falls on the ground looks like it can be harvested and cured, but in reality, it’s too late and is unsuitable for the curing process.
Olives are widely cultivated in subtropical and arid climates in both the northern and southern hemispheres. While hundreds of varieties are grown, some are used for table olives, and others are used to produce another highly desirable culinary product: olive oil.
Rich with culinary traditions, it’s not hard to imagine that Italy and Spain are the leaders in olive production. Portugal, Turkey, Morocco and Greece, also produce significant enough crops for them to be considered important contributors to their national economies. In fact, Syria, which has been in civil war for many years, still remains the fourth largest olive oil producer in the world. Overall, Europe accounts for about 75 percent of the world’s olive supply and also possesses the greatest appetite of both table olives and olive oil.
In the U.S., California has become an important producer. Not only is California now famous for its ubiquitous pitted and canned black olive, it is now a serious contender of olive oil, much to the chagrin of countries that have traditionally been mainstay importers to the U.S., such as Spain and Italy. While California produces only 1 percent of the world’s olive oil exports, it now accounts for about 6 percent of olive oil sales in the U.S.
The most common curing processes used for olives are lye, salt brine, dry, water and air curing. Almost all those canned black olives are lye cured. Lye is the by-product of wood ash and is a highly caustic substance. Lye is used because of the speed in which it draws out the oleuropein and cures the olive (days instead of weeks). Some feel that this method is not “real” and the product is less tasty. It is a fact that many nutrients are removed. Also, some of the most intense flavor is developed right around the pit. Since the pit and some of the surrounding fruit flesh is removed in almost all lye-cured olives, the flavor is reduced as well.
Brine curing is a more traditional, but time-consuming method. Brine is water with salt dissolved in it. Cleaned olives are submerged in vats of brine. But like traditional bread making, a culture needs to be introduced to get the process going. The culture is a small amount of live active solution from previously used brine that contains yeasts and sugars from the preceding batch. Salt concentration is increased over several weeks until curing is complete. The olives are then rinsed, and a fresh brine solution (which may be flavored) is used as a bottling solution.
Dry curing results in what is commonly known as “Greek Style” olives. This is done by layering ripe, black olives and dry rock salt in barrels. As the salt begins curing the olives, the bitterness in the fruit is reduced by leaching. The batch is stirred every day, and the liquid that comes from the olives is drained out of the bottom of the containers. This process takes about four to six weeks. At the end, the olives are rinsed and the batch is coated lightly in oil. These olives are usually purplish in color and wrinkled. You will often find them in deli counters and their appearance is unappealing to many. However, the taste is wonderful, and the nutritional value is high.
Air curing is a simple and direct method that can be used with black olives. The olives are placed in porous burlap bags that encourage air movement all around the olives. After several weeks, the olives will cure and the bitterness will reduce. This type of olive tends to have strong flavors.
Both green and black olives can be cured using water alone. This method requires rinsing once or twice a day for several weeks. Water and air cured olives are perishable and should be kept in jars in the refrigerator and consumed within a few weeks of being cured. On the other hand, Greek style, lye, and brine-cured olives can be preserved in crocks almost indefinitely.
It’s great to know that something that has been valued since antiquity continues to be prized in our modern culture. Olives connect us to our past, and in a way, make history “walk and talk.” The olive tree and oil are mentioned many times in the Old and New Testament biblical texts. Olives were used for food, cleansing, medicine, lamp fuel and for religious rites.
The next time you pop an olive into your mouth, take satisfaction knowing that millions before you have enjoyed the same experience, and you are perpetuating a great tradition to your descendants as well.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.