Olives have been consumed by both humans and animals for thousands of years. It was only a few decades ago, that the average consumer in Europe and the U.S.A knew only a few varieties—you know, the green, the black and the …stuffed!
Little did we knew about this fantastical fruit, being amazingly versatile, that could be ground into spreads and tapenades, mixed into salads, added to sauces or eaten straight out of hand.
As we have previously analysed into so many posts, olive trees are amongst the oldest trees ever harvested by humans, like 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.
Olive trees develop best in a warm, subtropical zone, especially close to the sea. They require little soil to thrive. Historically speaking, the first trees ever encountered were not really trees but shrubs. Assyrians where the first who discovered that they could press oil from this fruit, and so they started cultivating the shrubs. Over time, it evolved into the millenia – long tree we know of today.
Harvesting The Olives
As you probably know by now reading through this blog, it is HOW you raise and harvest the fruit that affects the quality and flavor. Unfortunately, in some olive oil producing countries like Spain or Italy, producers use machines that shake the tree until the olives fall off, in order to save time and money. This process doesn’t make for optimal quality – since not all olives on a tree ripen simultaneously, many of the olives collected may be still very young or very ripe, which affects the quality of the oil. In additiona, the rough handling can damage the delicate fruit and may cause damage to the tree itself.
The best, most fastidious olive growers such as in Greece for example, use a traditional, more time-consuming method: they pick the olives by hand. Each olive is selected for ripeness and picked at just the right moment. These olives bruise less, and have a rich, full flavor.
Color Wars: Green is the New Black
Hey, did you know that there are no green olive trees and no black olive trees? All olive trees are the same… In fact, the color of an olive is an indication of how ripe an olive is. In other words, green olives ripen and go from green to light brown, to a more redish and purple, to the deepest, darkest black. In general, the darker the olive, the riper it was when it was picked from the tree.
To have a green olive, producers are usually icking them up at the start of the harvest season, in September and October. These fruits have a firm texture and nice nutty flavor. If we want to pick black olives, these are picked in November and December, sometimes as late as January, and they’re softer and meatier.
How Olives are made
The olive is nothing else but a fruit with a single large stone inside. (Yes, as we have mentioned in the past, olives are fruits, not veggetables!) They contain a chemical compouned called oleuropein, which give them a bitterness. Compared with other stone fruits like peaches and cherries olives have a strikingly low sugar content and a huge oil content which ranges between 12-30%, both of which vary depending on the time of harvest and the variety.
Olives are cured
What makes an olive … well, an olive?
This affects the characteristic saltiness, tender texture, and flavor. Thanks to their bitterness, to be editable, olives must go through a curing process. Lets say you decide to bite a raw olive, directly from a tree? BIG mistake. The bitterness will leave you stranded!
Basically what happens during curing an loive is similar to fermenting wine. It’s the conversion of the olive’s natural sugars into lactic acid (OK , not exactly as wine, but…). There are many methods of curing a olive into an editable one:
- With brine: Ripened black olives are immeresed in brine to ferment (that is, salt water). Olives tha tare cured in brine are often sweet and full of depth, since the brine acts to intensify the fruit’s natural flavors.
- With water-curing: olives are soaked and left in water, then rinsed and repeating the process, until the botterness is gone. The slowest of all methods, and not used around anymore (ok, perhaps your grandmother is using it).
- Dry-curing: Olives are put under salt for a period of time. Salt draws all moisture and bitterness and you have a black olive that is has a deep flavor, and a wrinkly, prune-like appearance.
- Sun/air curing: in very few cases, olives can be fermented either on the branch or, once picked, by laying them straingh under the sun. The Thruba variety from Crete is an example of an olive left to cure on the tree, for example.
When eating olives you should know that they should be relatively firm, and never mushy or visibly bruised. If you’re shopping for uncanned olives, look for olives dressed in brine, which helps them retain their moisture and flavor.
Once home, when you open the pack, you must store your olives in the fridge, either in plastic or a glass container, completely immersed into olive oil, if they came with olive oil. If the olives contain brine, but you threw it away, make your own—just add a teaspoon of salt to a cup and a half of water.
Best Olive Varieties to Shop
Olive varieties get their distinctive qualities from the tree they grew up, the region and the climate, and as mentioned above, how they were harvested and cured. The result is different olives with different flavor characteristics.
The king of Greek table olives, popular Kalamata olives are deep purple, with tight, shiny skin, and a pretty almond shape. They’re typically preserved in olive oil, or vinegar, or a mixture of olive oil herbs and lemon (like Urbangrains’ green olives) for a distinctive rich, smoky, fruity flavor. This variety is a great candidate for tapenades, but you can also add them to food, like the green olive and chicken recipe I have prepared for you – see recipe tomorrow!
Based in Delphi, the home of the ancient Greek oracle, these hand-picked olives are well prized for good reason. Picked from their branches when very ripe, they slowly brine cured to a fruity flavor and a melt-in-your-mouth softness. In Greece, Amfissa olives are often served in stews; they’re also great beside cheeses and cured meats.
A very large table olive variety, also called … donkey olives (this should be the fun fact of the day!) These green, tangy in flavor, olives can be used to produce oil or served as table olives. Very famous and preferred by many.
Athinolia is relative unfamous olive that matures slowly and is collected from the end of December until the beginning of January. Its fruits have a medium size oval shape. When Athinolia and Koroneiki olives are mixed they produce a full-body extra virgin olive oil of a balanced and intricate fruity flavour like this one here.
There are actually hundreds of olive oil varieties, too many to list here. This is a very small list, but enough to keep you going. Well, until next time!