The history of the olive is a long one, dating back to Biblical times. The olive branch was the symbol shown by God to Noah to indicate the end of the flood. According to Greek mythology, the olive tree was a gift from the goddess Athena to the people of Athens. In fact, olive trees were cultivated in Crete and Assyria over 5000 years ago. And the olive itself has been eaten and enjoyed by all the peoples of the region for thousands of years. Throughout the Mediterranean, the olive has always been highly valued; olive oil was used as fuel; as a preservative; as an analgesic; and as a perfume. Olive wood was used for construction and decoration.
The picking process is an important factor in determining the final taste and quality of the olive as it appears on our table. To pick black olives, many cost conscious producers use sticks or machines to shake the ripe fruit from the trees. Some producers leave the olives on the trees until they are so ripe that they fall off by themselves. In either case, the result is an inferior black olive. Since not all olives on a tree reach ripeness at the same time, machine or stick harvesting means that many of the olives collected may be under or overripe. Olives harvested by either method are likely to be damaged by this rough handling. They have an inconsistent texture with many of the mushy, soft spots found on any bruised fruit. Mechanical picking also yields an olive with an inferior flavor, as the bruising alters the chemical make-up the olive.
To avoid these pitfalls, the best producers use an older, more time-consuming method-hand picking. Careful hand-picking insures that each olive is plucked at just the right stage and all bruising is avoided. The careful handling is evident in the cured olive's firm, even texture, and in its wonderful rich flavor.
The color of an olive indicates the stage of ripeness at which it was picked. Green olives are olives picked before they are ripe, usually in September or October. They should have a firm texture and nutty flavor. What we refer to as "black" olives actually run the gamut from light brown, to beautiful shades of red and purple, all to way to deepest black. As a general rule, the darker the olive, the riper it was when it was picked. Black olives are usually picked in November and December, sometimes as late as January.
The lone exception to this rule is the "olive" which more Americans eat than any other-the canned "black-ripe" olive. These olives are picked green, then (for reasons unknown-greater marketing appeal?) pumped with oxygen to turn them black, their new color fixed in place with ferrous gluconate. Since they taste like no other black or green olive (in fact, they have almost no taste at all), it is impossible to put them in the same class as you would any other olive. "Black-ripe" olives are to a hand-picked Kalamata olive what Wonder Bread is to a great loaf of double baked rye.
The olive itself is quite simply the fruit of the olive tree. But unlike most fruits, the olive is never eaten in its raw state. The high percentage of glucosides naturally found in the raw olive makes it incredibly bitter. Anyone who has unknowingly popped an uncured olive into his mouth will testify to this terrible bitterness. For the olive to become edible, the bitterness must be drawn from the olive, through one of several curing methods:
Lye Curing-This is the curing method used by nearly every large commercial olive producer. Invented in Spain, lye curing is the most time and cost efficient method of curing. Unfortunately, it also produces the least flavorful olive. Raw olives are submerged in vats filled with a lye solution. The alkaline lye quickly leaches out the glucosides from the olive. Unfortunately, the fast acting lye also takes with it much of the olive's natural flavor, leaving behind a slight chemical aftertaste.
Water or Brine Curing-Though water curing is much more traditional, and produces a far superior olive, most large producers have abandoned it for the faster and cheaper "Spanish cure." To cure in this older slower fashion, the olives are simply submerged in vats of fresh water or seasoned salted brine. The liquid naturally soaks the bitterness from the olives over a period of weeks or months. During that time, the water is regularly changed according to the preference of each producer. When the olives are aged in brine, it serves not only to remove the natural bitterness of the olives, but seasons them as well. Kalamata olives, for example, are cured in a red wine vinegar brine which helps give them their delicious, almost wine-like flavor. Some producers begin curing in a water bath, and then later shift their olives into a seasoned brine. Water or brine yield a naturally cured olive, bringing out and enhancing the natural flavors of the olives.
Dry Curing-In this method, raw olives are rubbed with salt and left to cure for a matter of weeks or months. The salt pulls the moisture from the olives, taking with it the olives' bitterness. The salt is them removed and the olives coated with olive oil to keep them from becoming too dry. (Some olives, such as Nyons, are dry cured first, and then aged in brine.) Dry cured olives have a deliciously concentrated full flavor, with the wrinkled appearance and texture of prunes. Their intense olive flavor makes them very popular among those who like their olives full-flavored.
Let's face it. Real olives have pits. Just like cherries, avocados, and peaches. (Those tasteless pitted "black-ripe" in cans have neither the taste nor the texture of real olives, so they don't count.) The way we figure it, putting up with the inconvenience of the pits is a small price to pay for enjoying the wonderful flavors of carefully picked and cured olives. How you get rid of the pits when you eat olives at cocktail parties is a concern for etiquette experts, not eaters. For cooking purposes, it's really not that hard to pit black olives by hand. Just position one end of an olive against our thumb, place two fingers over the other end, and push with your thumb.
The pit should slide right out between your fingers. If you prefer, you can use a sharp paring knife. Really, it's not that hard. Trust us; it's worth every bit of extra effort. For a few minutes of extra work, you'll have pitted olives that really taste like olives.
Types of Olives
As with wine, the soil and climate of the region where as an olive is grown have a marked effect on its flavor. The location in which an olive is grown, the style and time of its picking, and the method used to cure it, all determine the flavor of an olive. Each type and style of olive has its own unique flavor and texture. Below is a survey of our favorites, broken down by country.
Italy's broad range of climates, from Sicily in the south to the Alps in the north, produces a wide range of olives:
Ligurian Olives San Remo-Hand picked in the hills of the Italian Riviera, these small brown-black olives are cured in a fresh, laurel-scented brine for over nine months by Livio Crespi (the man who also makes Pumate San Remo, the best sun-dried tomatoes anywhere). A little bigger and meatier than Nicoise olives, Ligurian olives have a wonderful full, aromatic flavor. Livio Crespi's were chosen by the French food critics Gault-Millau as Italy's finest olives. Try them in a sauce for fresh swordfish or tuna, on pasta, or in a marinade of olive oil, fresh garlic, and strips of orange peel.
Gaeta Itri-The town of Itri, in the district of Gaeta has been known for the quality of its olives, since Roman times. Gaeta Itri olives are organically grown, hand-picked and cured in fresh brine. A beautiful purple-brown in color, they have a firm, even texture. Gaeta Itri olives are especially good in pasta dishes or on pizzas (nearby Naples is the home of the original pizza), or serve them drizzled with Gaeta Itri olive oil and a sprig of rosemary.
If you are looking for olive trees in France, you go to Provence, in the southeastern corner of the country. The cool winters of Provence are said to yield particularly flavorful olives.
Niçoise-The olives of Nice are the tiny black jewels of the olive world. Hand-picked and cured in fresh brine, Niçoise olives have a unique delicious, delicate flavor. Niçoise olives are a essential ingredient in the dishes of the French Riviera-Salade Niçoise, Pissalaiere (Provençal onion, olive, and anchovy "pizza"), Tapenade (Provençal olive paste). Of course, they're also delicious eaten on their own.
Nyons-The area around Nyons is the furthest north olives can be grown in France. First dry cured, then aged in brine, the olives of Nyons are plump and wrinkled. They are meatier than the Niçoise, and have a fine aromatic flavor. Nyons olives are particularly good dressed with light French olive oil and the traditional herbs of Provence such as thyme, savory, rosemary, or basil. While the Niçoise olives are France's best known olives, some olive lovers consider those of Nyons to be the country's finest. Judge for yourself.
Picholine-These crisp green olives have a wonderful nutty taste with just a slight undertone of anise. Hand-picked and fresh brine cured, Picholine olives are some of the finest green olives you'll ever taste. Their crisp texture makes them a nice addition to relish trays. Try them marinated with a little French olive oil and fresh fennel, or as accompaniment to roasted chicken, or seafood dishes.
Spain was one of the first western European countries to recognize the value of the olive, having received them from North Africa in the 4th century B.C. Today, Spain produces more olives than any other country-over 2,000,000 tons a year. Most of the Spanish olives which reach American shores are of poor quality. But, Zingerman's has discovered the olives of Delicias, S.A., grown in Murcia on Spain's eastern coast.
Gordal-Also known as "queen olives," "gordal" means "fat" in Spanish. The name is appropriate-these may be the biggest, fattest green olives you'll ever see! They have a firm, meaty texture and delicious rich flavor. At Zingerman's, we prepare them in a traditional Seville style marinade of Spanish extra virgin olive oil, cumin, fennel, bay, thyme, and garlic. The aroma alone is enough to make you a devotee of these fat green beauties.
Manzanilla-Smaller, crisper, and nuttier than Gordal olives. Cracked and dressed with olive oil and fresh garlic, Manzanilla olives make a great hors d'oevre served with ice cold fino sherry.
Morocco produces hundreds of varieties of olives, but in this country, the Moroccans are known for their fantastic dry cured olives. Slowly cured in salt, then lightly coated with olive oil, a Moroccan olive has a texture and appearance resembling that of a prune. Moroccan olives are very flavorful-dry curing intensifies and concentrates the flavor of the olive (like aging a ham or a cheese). If you love olives and you're ready to try one that really packs a punch, don't miss these! Many of our best olive customers are practically addicted to them! The Moroccans serve them in salads, tagines, or sprinkled with olive oil and hot peppers.
The olive has been an essential part of Greek history, agriculture, and cooking for over 3500 years. Today, only Spain produces more olives than Greece. The Greeks do consume more olives per capita than any other people in Europe-over 8 pounds per person! Consequently, the Greeks take their olives very seriously. Every region of the country produces its own distinctive olive. Of course, the locals in each area are always convinced that their particular olive is Greece's finest. Try them for yourself and choose your own favorites!
Kalamata-The best known Greek olive, Kalamatas are grown in the valley of Messina on the western end of the Peloponnesean Peninsula, near the town of Kalamata. Kalamatas are very attractive olives-they have a distinctive almond shape and a beautiful deep purple-black color. And they taste every bit as good as they look. After picking, Kalamatas are hand slit, then cured in a red wine vinegar brine, which gives them a distinctively fruity, almost wine-like flavor.
While the average Kalamata olive may be good, you have to taste one of Zingerman's hand-picked Kalamatas to really appreciate the true greatness of this fine olive. Careful hand-picking and slow natural brine curing makes these Kalamata olives vastly superior in both flavor and texture to any other Kalamata you'll find in this country. (Machine picked and lye cured, most other Kalamatas you'll find will be much less flavorful, with an uneven, often mushy consistency.) Quite simply, no other Kalamata can match the deep, winelike flavor or the consistent firm texture of these hand-picked beauties. Kalamata olives are traditionally served in a Greek village salad, with feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
Nafplion-Although they are little known outside of Greece, Nafplion olives are some of the most delicious green olives you'll ever try. The Nafplion is a small, light green olive, which grows only in the valley of Argos in the Eastern Peloponnese. Zingerman's Nafplion olives are hand-picked, then cracked with stones and naturally cured in brine. They have a consistent, firm, crunchy texture, and a superb, nutty, slightly smokey flavor. Nafplion olives are particularly good dressed with extra virgin olive oil, slices of fresh lemon and sprigs of fresh dill.
Amfissa-Amfissa olives come from the hills around Delphi, the legendary home of the ancient Greek oracles. The olives of Amfissa are hand-picked when they are very ripe, then slowly brine cured. They have a mild, fruity olive flavor and a somewhat softer texture. Their mellow flavor makes Amfissas a nice contrast to strong cheeses, or to some of the other, more full flavored olives. In Greece, Amfissa olives are often served in soups or stews.
Thasos-These wonderful dry cured olives come from the island of Thasos in the northern part of the Aegean Sea. Hand-picked when very ripe, slowly dry cured, and then lightly coated with olive oil. Somewhat milder than dry cured Moroccan olives, the olives of Thasos do have an intense, nutty olive flavor. In Greece, they are commonly eaten sprinkled with olive oil and oregano, while sipping a glass of wine or ouzo.