An ode to all the olives in my life
Olives were my first love – one that endures to this day; a relationship that has never disappointed. It began with a childhood habit of eating big Greek queen green olives and keeping at least one of the stones in my mouth, which I’d then suck all day and sometimes even sleep with. This ritual only ceased when, one fateful night, I awoke nearly choking on the seed.
It was green all the way until I discovered a kalamata olive marinated with basil and chillies that satisfied me deeply. From there, colour was no issue and I continued consuming olives indiscriminately and with abandon, feeling a secret happiness when faced with the daggy capsicum-stuffed small green types. There was a little lapse in our relationship the day I was forced to eat one of those tasteless black pitted olives that you don’t really see very much anymore, marking the only time I’ve been offended by an olive.
In fact, there followed a succession of stuffed options: almond (slightly odd); garlic (not really tasting of garlic); blue cheese (curious). Then, once, at a French restaurant I was introduced to the picholine olive: small, firm green and with a slight sweetness. Next, I opted for Chinese for an extended time, and it was around here that I fell in love all over again – this time with the dirty martini. Every now and again, when I’m feeling particularly daring, I’ve been known to enjoy a dirty martini made with a special Spanish green olive stuffed with anchovy.
I’m currently in my Italian moment: gaeta, a salted black olive that’s small and wrinkled and slightly mild in flavour; Ligurian olives, also small but green, and again with that wonderful firmness and slight unripe flavour that’s inherent to many green olives.
Cold hard facts
Olives grow on small, short evergreen trees native to Asia, the Mediterranean and Africa. They are a drupe, classified by its single stone, and technically a fruit. The trees themselves have an extensive root system that makes them drought resistant and very suited to hot, dry weather. If treated correctly, they can continue to fruit for hundreds of years.
Since fresh-from-the-tree olives are horrible and bitter, except for a particular black, meaty Greek olive that shrivels and ripens on the tree called throubes, they need to be cured – either by brining or salting before eating. They are classified as either table or eating olives, or olives used for oil, however there are many varieties suited for both. Table olives can be cured or treated at any stage of their development, the green merely a black olive waiting to ripen, whereas olives used for oils must be very ripe. Either way, most are harvested by hand as they bruise easily (green ones are generally picked over February and the black ones in March-April).
Don’t even get me started on olive oil
In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena was declared a winner by Zeus for giving mankind the most useful plant of all – the olive tree. The wood is prized for its durability, a branch is seen as a symbol of peace and victory, and finally the fruit is eaten and from it comes olive oil, which can be used for cooking, lighting, as an ointment or medicine, and also as a means to control unruly hair.
Like any produce, olive oils have a season and are considered most fresh from May to June. New season (or novello) oils can sometimes be identified by their beautiful dark green colour, which slowly lightens over time as the sediments in the oil begin to settle. There are endless varieties to speak of, including oils that smell of a ripe tomato vine, or of almonds, and with flavours ranging from buttery and mild to strong and bitter.
Lucky for me, there’s no question of the importance of both olives and their oils in Italian cooking, and suddenly I have the perfect excuse to use olives and their oil willy nilly and to my heart’s content. And so I do.
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Lynsey Fryers. Food preparation by Suresh Watson.