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Edward Bottone: Olives, Horrible, Aren't They?Edward Bottone
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Olives, Horrible, Aren't They?

by Edward Bottone

“A taste older than meat, older than wine, A taste as old as cold water.” – Lawrence Durrell (Prospero’s Cell)

Not everybody like olives. Some say they’re horrible. I, however, think they are a tiny miracle. Right up there with the miracle of wine and bread. In fact these three form the old-as-time Trinity of bread wine and oil, the symbol of civilized societies. They may seem insignificant, bitter, briny, earthy little nubs to some. Even after some experimental tastings one might find it hard to venerate the olive. But take a drive, as I did, out of Rome, heading south and east and pass through Venafro, once an ancient Samnite encampment, and witness the miles of gnarly ghostly-green leafed orchards of olive. Not only will this parade of ancient trees persuade you in favor of the wonder of the olive, but a taste of the oil pressed from the fruit of these trees can prove transporting. You blink and there, spread out before you, is all of history. There seems no time before the time of the olive. It was touted by the ancient Minoans as early as 3,500 BCE. The essential olive was already part of the “cradle of civilization” in Persia, Phoenicia, Palestine, and north Africa. It soon crossed the Mediterranean to Greece, the Greeks taking it to Sicily and Italy during Magna Graecia and the Romans spreading it into Gaul. Homer, Herodotus, Cato and Virgil all discoursed on the olive tree, the Greeks dedicated the olive to Athena and the Romans, in turn, to Minerva. Mummies three millennia old were preserved in olive oil, and bowls of preserved olives were buried with them. The dove bearing the olive branch has long been an enduring symbol of peace; just the same the death-dealing club of Hercules was made of olive wood. When the promise of the “oil of forgiveness” was granted Adam, seeds were place on his lips, from which grew the cedar, the cypress and the olive. Moses claimed that the olive tree grew on Mount Arrarat, and the olive tree often stands as the silent witness to the events in the life of Jesus. The olive provided sustenance and light and was everywhere regard with reverence. “As old as cold water.” There are 800 million olives trees in the world, though I can’t imagine how such a calculation is made. Five hundred million are in the Mediterranean, the climate olives love most. The trees will tolerate heat, poor rocky soil and areas unsuitable for other crops. Hot dry summers, short wet springs, mild winters are ideal. The trees require patience. They grow very slowly, take 12-15 years before they bear fruit. The fruit bearing olive tree is a relative of jasmine and lilac, the Oleaceae family. Dozens of varieties have been cultivated over the 7,000 years of the Olea europaea’s domestication but only about 75 major varieties are commercially grown. The fruit of the olive tree is a drupe, like a peach, apricot or cherry. It has the same skin, meaty pulp and single stone or pit at its centre. The big difference is that, even when ripe, it is inedibly bitter thanks to oleuropein. So who ever figured out just how to make the little nuggets palatable? There is a theory that in ancient days olive branches overhanging the sea dropped fruit into the salty waters. After days in the sloshing brine a passing fishermen picked out a bobbing olive and the next thing you know – Tapenade! But where the process so simple. Olives are harvested by hand, shaking the tree or whacking the branches with a stick. No modern technology here. They are taken unripe green or fully ripe, dark brown, purple or black. Green olives are set in an alkali solution for up to 12 hours to leach out the bitter oleurpein, then repeatedly rinsed and finally put in successive baths of increasingly salty brine. Black olives for the most part are brine cured, although some are oil cured like French Nyons and dry cured like Italian Bella di Cerignolas. Only about 3% of all olives harvested are eating olives, the rest are pressed into oil. The largest producers of olives are Spain, Italy, Greece and France with olive production also being high in Tunisia and Portugal. Other olive producing countries include Chile, Peru, Mexico, Angola, China, Australia and California. The San Joaquin valley in California produces about 150,000 tons of olives year, less than five percent of the world crop. The giant California olive growers don’t really cure or sell black olives. Except for a few forward thinking new growers, the big boys sell “blackened” olives. These unripe green olives, have been treated to a series of lye baths, ferrous gluconate and oxidized until they turn a dark brown-black color. They are then steamed, brined, pitted, sorted and cooked in cans at 260 degrees for 14 minutes to purify them. No wonder some people think olives are horrible. `The health benefits of olive oil, especially its cholesterol battling benefits, are now common knowledge. And since the olive is the source of the golden elixir, it also has a beneficial side. Each olive is between 4-18 calories, a low impact snack or cooking component, and contain essential amino acids, unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins A and E, beta carotene (the infamous antioxidant), calcium and magnesium. Olives and especially their oil have been touted for millennia as a cure for insomnia, cholera and ulcers, and aid to healing wounds, soothing aching muscles, soothing sun damaged skin, even slowing the aging process. They also stimulate the appetite and aid digestion. Cooking with olives is fanciful. They add character and visual excitement to a dish. Green olives give a salty sweet punctuation, and black olives add an earthy bass note. They are happy with herbs (rosemary, fennel, oregano, chili peppers), tomatoes and garlic, with cheeses (especially goat and sheep cheeses), enjoy the company of chicken, beef, veal, fish, seafood and fowl, and are delish baked in bread. So when you take up the olive for a snack or to cook, you’re one with the ancients. Never was there an occasion when you could cook with all of history behind you and be contemporary at the same moment.

Olive Knowledge
Here are a few types you are likely to encounter.

Atalanta Medium sized Greek-type, soft meaty flesh, earthy flavour, the definition of the colour olive drab.
Bella di Cerignola Come in black and green, huge Italian specimens, the black dry cured, with a soft, sweet flesh. The green have a blueish cast, have a sweet and vegetable taste.
Gaeta Small Italian, black, wrinkled, salt cured, aggressive.
Greek Black Large, purple, soft fleshed, winey flavour.
Italian San Remo Green brown to purple-black, taste a little like artichokes, often sold in herb infused oil.
Kalamata Bullet shaped, deep purple Greek olive with a pronounced after taste, often packed in vinegar.
Manzanilla Medium sized, crisp fleshed green olives from Spain and California, Mostly found pitted, these are the ones stuffed with pimento.
Ni├žoise Small, cordovan dark, and pleasantly sour. Sometimes packed with herbs. Great snack.
Nyons Small, black, from the south of France, dry cured, enjoyably bitter.
Picholine Pale green, elongated and pointed, crunchy, salty, the cocktail favourite.
Control the intensity of any olive by rinsing in water before eating or cooking. Store them in their oil for a week or so, longer in the fridge. Always eat olives at room temperature or above.