|Explore the art of cooking with Olea europaea|
Nearly 20 years ago, in an issue of Gourmet, a photo of a potato and curly endive salad displayed huge, bland, canned, California "black ripes." Those black-ripe olives were, of course, made from unripe green olives, lye-cured then blackened, the color fixed with ferrous gluconate.
Just as Disney had done to Collodi's Pinocchio, we Americans had taken the essence of the Mediterranean olive and turned it into a shadowy caricature. Less than a year later, in deference to the superior flavor of imported olives, a photo in Gourmet showcased a little heap of lovely, brine-cured Niçoise olives in a handsome chef's salad.
In the past 15 years or so, the olive, with its slightly bitter, salty, and soulful personality has made its way from its native land into American kitchens. This foreign fruit with a history as old as civilization, exuding the heat of the Mediterranean and the smells of the outdoor marketplace, has now taken root in American soil.
Extending the Olive Branch
The tree from which the domesticated olive springs, Olea europaea, originated either in Syria or Crete, or in both simultaneously, and spread from there, thriving in climates with temperatures that don't dip much below freezing. The olive has been cultivated for about five thousand years and its remains have been found in Spanish caves inhabited as far back as eight thousand years ago.
The olive's oil has been a lubricant, a medicament, and a component of soap. It has brightened the western world with the flames that it fuels and as a delicious, health-giving culinary essential. It's been used to anoint pharaohs and philosophers, Phoenicians and pharisees. Because of olive oil's tremendous economic and religious importance, its source--the numinous olive tree with its great, tortured trunk and silver-green leaves--became sacred to many cultures.
But its fruit, the lowly olive, has had a different history, never held sacred by the ancients, nor adulated for any health-giving characteristics by us moderns. A much more humble item than the oil it contains, the olive is inedible when first harvested, containing acrid glucosides that must have made it a colossal culinary challenge. Who knows how our ancestors discovered that leaching the olive for weeks in plain water or brine, or for days in lye or wood ashes, would remove the bitterness.
However they came about, cured olives rank among the most delicious foods. They can be used in relishes, as a garnish or condiment, as an essential ingredient, or simply by themselves. They whet the appetite and complement cheese and breads as well as fruits and dry young wines. They are the finest of takeout foods and are never bettered by other hors d'oeuvres or appetizers, no matter how much work or money or imagination went into them.
Three main factors contribute to the flavor of the cured olive: its ripeness at picking, the methods of curing, and the flavors that are added in a marinade or in storage. Of secondary importance are olive size, variety, place of origin, and degree of fermentation.
Olives ripen over several months, going from green in late summer and early fall, to maroon in late fall, to black in winter. Olive trees can be laden with olives at three stages of ripeness at one time, in varying proportions according to the time of year.
Olives picked green are crisp and firm. Green olives that are lye-cured or cured in potash in the old traditional way (green ones lend themselves best to that method) can be the mildest of olives; lye extracts the glucosides and other water soluble flavors from the fruit. After lye curing, flavor must be added in the form of a salt brine (as with the California "black-ripes") or a marinade. A few lye-cured green European olives do retain some of their olive flavor, most notably the Lucques and Cerignola, which are still too mild to impart flavor in cooking.
A second method of curing--water or brine curing--is best applied to firm olives at either the green or maroon stages of ripeness. Cracking, crushing, or slitting the olives lets the water or brine penetrate the olive flesh and shortens the curing time. Eating the new crop of water-cured, then brine-cured green olives marks the advent of winter and Christmas in many Mediterranean countries.
The third method of curing is the dry cure, also referred to as oil or salt cure. Ripe olives are packed in an equal amount of salt (un-iodized or sea salt) and are left to sweat; they are stirred and drained often. Depending on the size of the olive, the process takes four to six weeks. The olives are then dipped in boiling water, dried, rubbed with olive oil, and stored with or without aromatics. The result is a meaty, flavorful, and quite salty olive, appropriate in dishes that call for cooking with olives--but not for more than an hour lest they lose flavor and start to disintegrate. If dry-cured olives are improperly cured for too short a time, they can be very bitter indeed. A variation is the baked olive, rarely found in American stores, which is usually a more mellow, drier olive than the salt-cured dry olive.
Other factors lend character to cured olives. The variety contributes not only size and flavor but also pit-to-flesh ratio. Olives to which vinegar has been added have a completely different character than olives stored in plain brine. The kalamata and other vinegary olives are best eaten out of hand, in certain salads, or with goat or sheep cheese and bread.
Mother brine is the liquid in which olives are placed after curing. When olives are stored in barrels in mother brine, fermentation takes place as a natural process. Natural gases given off can expand and cause olive containers to explode. To prevent this, olives that travel long distances are sometimes pasteurized. The effect is subtle, but it does reduce the olive's complexities.
Of course, the characteristics of any type of cured olive will be altered for the worse if badly or carelessly made. Olives harvested too ripe, then brine-cured, end up soft and mushy as do olives kept too long in their brine. Olives bruised in harvest or held too long before curing will contribute a pronounced off flavor to the end product.
Saltiness serves different purposes among olives, but an olive can be too salty. (When cooking with a very salty olive, boil it three minutes in plain water before adding it to your stew.) By the same token, olives can be inappropriately seasoned, or held in inferior vinegar or olive oils. They can be sold when they are past their prime, even showing signs of rancidity. To be sure olives are not only well made and well stored but also appropriate to the use you have in mind, taste the olive before you buy. Most merchants of bulk olives encourage sampling.
An Olive for Every Plate
Olives can serve a number of functions in the kitchen. As a condiment, they add complexity by contrasting or complementing other ingredients. For example, in a fruit salad with, say, pears, or an orange and onion salad, a subtle, small ripe olive adds inestimably In a relish, most notably tapenade, the olive's versatile flavor can be used by itself on crostini, or put on a grilled fish steak or meat chop at the last minute. A tapenade can be whisked into a vinaigrette, stuffed into a boned leg of lamb, or tucked under the skin of a roasting chicken.
Or the flavor of the olive can be central to a dish, permeating or infusing the whole, as in the slow-cooked Moroccan tagine or stew. When cooking tagines, first boil water-cured or brine-cured green olives for a few minutes in water and add to the stew. For daubes that require less olive flavor, add dry-cured black olives one hour before the stew is cooked. For beef or pork stews, add subtle, tiny ripe olives to the finished gravy at the last minute.
But the most elegant and soulful way to serve olives is to purchase the best ones available, place them in a beautiful dish, and set them forth with a finely crafted goat or sheep cheese, a fresh, crusty, rustic bread, and a young, refreshing wine. Add figs if they are in season. You'll have food fit for the pharaohs.
Consumers would find it more informative for merchants to label olives according to ripeness, cure, and marinade, rather than by area of origin or variety of olive, for such designations are used far too freely to be reliably consistent. The term "Greek" olive, for example, has widely come to mean any brine-cured ripe olive, even though some Greek olives may be from Greece, others from California, some green, and some purple, and so on. A Gaeta olive can either be from Gaeta, or from Morocco. Some olives come packed with herbs, like the Toscanelle from Tuscany, while others come by their added flavors in the stores where they are sold. I list a few olives to give some guidelines to their purchase, but you must always sample the olives you are going to buy to be sure they are what you want.
· Small, brine-cured ripe, for fruit salads, gratins, and vegetable stew, for adding at the last minute to finished gravies, and for eating out of hand.
Niçoise, Elitses, Ligurian, Taggiasche, Souri ripe, Toscanelle
· Medium to large brine-cured ripe, for tapenade and eating out of hand
Royal, Saracena, Greek style, Hojiblanca, Ascolano ripe, Atalanti (without vinegar), Volou, Amfissa
· Ripe olives, brine-cured, vinegar added, for green salads and eating out of hand.
Calamata (Kalamata), Alfonso, Nabali, Atalanti (with vinegar), Saloniki
· Dry-cured (salt- or oil-cured) ripe for stews (cooking time no longer than one hour) and eating out of hand.
Moroccan, Nyons, Thasos (Throumba), Lebanese, Grossane, California, Farga, French, Empettre (should not be stewed)
· Small water- or brine-cured green, for eating out of hand.
Picholine, Naphlion, Lebanese, Souri green, Arbequina
· Medium to large, water- or brine-cured green, for tapenade, using in long-cooked stews, and eating out of hand.
Greek green, Lebanese or Syrian, Santa Katherina, Barne'a, Ascolano green, Sicilian-style, Cracked Manzanillo, Cassées des Baux
· Lye-cured green for eating out of hand.
California black-ripe, Lucques, Carignola (green or black), Manzanillo, Sevillano, Queen, Royal Spanish