DIY Olives: Who Ate the First Olive?

How to Cure Olives:

Galveston olives from my backyard tree
Galveston olives from my backyard tree
Our new house in Galveston has a small, and very old, olive tree near the back porch. I haven’t figured out the cultivar–my iPhone plant app says they are “African olives.”

When I noticed that these olives were starting to get ripe, I decided to pick them–and come up with a plan for how to use them. I went with a simple brine fermentation. IMG_7342So, now in the months that it takes to cure these olives, I will share my trials and errors and few thoughts about the ancient foodstuff.

Back in the 1980s, I rented a house in Lafayette, California on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel from Oakland and Berkeley. The house had three olive trees and they produced lots of olives. Curiosity drove me to try a black olive right off the tree. The glucosides in uncured olives make them taste like soap–strong nasty soap. I didn’t just spit it out–I had to go brush my teeth.

The internet was not a research option at the time, and the information I could find at the library informed me that industrial olive producers in California pick green olives, turn them black with chemicals, cure them with lye, pit them and can them in a mild brine. This didn’t encourage me to try curing the olives in my backyard. The black olives we Americans eat from cans are a sorry version of the ancient foodstuff.

Olive trees were cultivated in Crete over 5000 years ago. You have to wonder who started eating these bitter little fruits? Perhaps an olive tree growing near salt water somewhere dropped a few fruits in a tidal brine pool? According to Greek mythology, Athena gave the olive tree to the people of Athens. I learned more about European and Middle Eastern olives in the blossoming Berkeley food scene of the 1980s. I learned that there are dozens of different olive varieties and lots of ways to cure olives.

Today, olives are such a big part of the American food scene that you can find kalamata olives and Greek olives in supermarkets all over the country. Even my local Galveston Kroger has an large olive bar display. I have studied the different curing techniques with great interest. Here’s the results of my taste test with examples from the Central Market Olive Bar.

Dry-Cured Olives: Dry salt cures are among the oldest ways to make olives palatable.

Black Beldi: Morocco (Marrakech, Fez): Leathery, wrinkled skin, dense velvety texture, deep meaty flavor. The black Beldi is rolled in salt and sun-dried.IMG_7422

Green Halkidikis (Greece) An ancient olive sometimes cured in dry salt then marinated in oil. This is a classic Greek olive with bold flavor.IMG_7426

Lye-cured olives: Curing olives briefly in lye before brining speeds up the process and makes tender olives.

Picholines: France (Provence): One of the world’s definitive green olives, crisp, tender, salty. Often picked green and cured in lye before brining. Also picked black for olive oil production. IMG_7424

Green Cerignola Italy (Puglia) Huge, glossy skin, chewy and mild. La Bella di Cerignola olives are cured in lye for 10 hours, then brined in a 9% saline solution and sometimes treated with food colors IMG_7421

Brined olives: The little olives from my Galveston tree resemble the tiny Arbequina olives of Spain. And since I love the flavor of these Spanish mini-olives, I followed the same brining technique used to cure them.

Arbequina: Spain (Catalonia): Tiny and firm with a delicate herbal flavor, Spanish argequinas are cured in a 9% saline brine for 1 to 2 months. IMG_7420

Avenue O Olives: United States (Galveston, Texas): Tiny to medium-sized, green black and somewhere in between, these olives all came from the same tree. Cured in 3.5% brine for 11 days and 9% brine for 7 days (so far).

Marinades and Mixes: Mixing olives with other ingredients in a marinade is a favorite way of serving olives in Europe and the Middle East.

Basque Olive Mix France/Spain (Basque region) Three different olives harvested on both sides of the border in a marinade with sweet peppers, Espelette peppers and herbs make a brightly flavored blend.