I just adore olives. I could honestly gobble them down all day! These wonderful little fruits are celebrated as a delectable speciality the world over, and have a place of pride on any kitchen table. The first time I found myself in an ancient European olive grove – in Italy I believe – with gnarled and twisted trunks twisting up to stretching branches of delicate, silvery leaves I knew I was quite in love. These weathered forms had certainly stood for hundreds of years, and seemed to emit a frequency of wisdom and whisper stories of all the things they’d witnessed. No wonder they call olives the food of the gods!
Melanie of George Robinson Kitchens asked me if I could explain how olives are transformed from fruit on the branch to a treat on our tables, and I was delighted. Not many people know about the necessary process olives must undertake to become our favourite tapas, and as a mildly obsessive foodie, this is a tale I am happy to tell!
An Ancient Prize
The olive finds it’s historical roots in the Mediterranean basin, where humans have been cultivating these elegant trees for thousands of years. The oil pressed from freshly harvested olives provided fuel for the “eternal flame” of the original Olympic games in Ancient Greece. Those clever Grecians also treated their skin and hair with olive oil as a point of grooming and good health. From Europe and northern Africa, across the Middle East to China and then sea bound to the Americas, the olive travelled the globe as people did, and so this treat took hold as a world wide culinary delight.
Back in the Mediterranean, olives act as one third of the “triad” of celebrated Mediterranean cuisine, the others being the wheat that gives us bread, pasta and couscous, and the grapes that facilitate the wonder that is wine! This all sounds like a really lovely meal taking shape to me, but rather than getting distracted I’ll get back to what makes an olive so yummy, because they certainly don’t start out that way!
A Bitter Bite!
In my twenties, I bought a piece of land in Portugal. This charming place was an amphitheatre-esque valley stepped with ancient stone terraces, each dotted with an array of fruit trees, and the olive trees I admired so much. It was autumn, and the olives were ripe. Plump little fruits of varying shades, from green through purple to black, littered the branches like perfect little Christmas ornaments!
Of course, I did what many might instinctively do on seeing something they associate with delicious. I plucked one off and put it in my mouth… Yuck! Truth be told, there are few things more disgusting than a fresh olive! Olives contain a shockingly bitter compound called oleoropein which must be removed through curing. If only I’d known!
There are several ways to cure olives, removing the oleoropein within and revealing the lovely flavours underneath. They can be dry cured with salt, cured with only water or even cured with lye which is practised commercially, but my favourite way to go about it is the traditional process of brine curing.
Brine curing olives takes quite a long time – months in fact – but the result is hugely satisfying. After several years of clambering about amongst the limbs of my trees to retrieve their bounty, and broad experimentation with different approaches in pursuit of the perfect method, I settled on a strategy that I take great pride in. Each year my olives are enjoyed by friends and given as gifts to great success. Should you ever find yourself with a harvest of ripe olives, I highly recommend it!
Jemima’s Olive Curing Method
For the curing process you will need:
- Your olives, whole but with stems and leaves removed. I pick the olives when they are a fantastic mix of different colours. Leaving them longer might mean creepy crawlies get to devour them before you do!
- Plastic or glass containers to store the curing olives (avoiding metal is best)
- Still water
- Sea salt
For the finishing process you will also need:
- Red wine vinegar
- A little virgin olive oil
- Your preferred herbs and spices
- For the first week, make a brine solution adding 50g of salt for each litre of water. Prepare enough brine to totally cover your olives, and submerge them in a closed container. I like to jiggle the container around each day, to help things along.
- At the end of the week, drain out the solution and replace it with a fresh batch of brine. You will notice that old brine is coloured with the pigments of the olives! For this brine, and ongoing, you will need to double the salt adding 100g per litre of water.
- Change the brine every week for 8 to 12 weeks until the bitterness is gone. Keeping in mind how unpleasant they can be, don’t start tasting them until at least the sixth week!
- When you deem your olives ready, mix a 50/50 solution of red wine vinegar and water with 80g of salt per litre. Pour this solution over your olives, leaving a small gap at the top for a thin layer of olive oil which will seal the brine and ensure that your olives last.
- If you wish, add herbs and spices to create different flavours. I like to add a varying selection of citrus zest, chopped chilli, fennel seeds, oregano and thyme! With the vinegar and herbs in the mix, the flavour of your olives will continue to develop for a couple of weeks. If stored in closed containers, with no need to chill, they will keep for well over a year.
Not only are they scrumptious, but olives are also an incredibly powerful health food. Packing an impressive punch of Vitamin E, Iron, Copper, Potassium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Calcium and Vitamin A, alongside a host of antioxidants, the benefits of regularly snacking on olives are substantial!
This wonderful rainbow of nutrients will support your body in fighting inflammation, reducing the risks of heart disease and cancer, as well as promoting bone strength, soft skin and healthy eyes. All of these qualities really drive home why the olive has been so precious to many cultures all over the world.
If you too are sold on the magic of olives but don’t live in an olive growing climate, you might be interested to hear that the olive tree will serve as a gorgeous house plant, which surely makes for a fantastic kitchen conversation starter. They are as elegant as they are are fascinating!
Jemima is a freelance writer and enthusiastic smallholder who lives in Central Portugal with her Belgian partner and a menagerie of animals. She loves to cook and believes that kitchens are the soul of every home.