Olives

Olives

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

We twenty-first century folk consider ourselves pretty clever, with the sophisticated food-processing techniques we have at hand to help us manufacture and manipulate all sorts of fancy new foodstuffs. And yet consider the miracle wrought by our forebears on one of the most ancient trees we know: it seems barely credible that primitive man was able to develop ways of extracting oil from the hard little fruit of the olive tree, let alone work out a way to make these same fruit edible.

The olive tree is inextricably entwined with the history and development of Mediterranean civilisations. The olive tree has been cultivated for over 6000 years, beginning in Palestine and Syria. It was here that the wild tree developed into a sturdy, compact, oil-rich variety which quickly spread westwards to flourish all around the rocky coastlines of the Mediterranean. The great ancient civilisations of Crete, Egypt, Greece and Rome revered the olive’s oil. It was used in ritual and religion, to light their temples, to anoint their bodies and also to work a more mundane transformation on their daily bread. Through the ages the olive branch has become a symbol of peace, constancy and wisdom – one might almost say of civilisation itself.

It remains a mystery when the discovery was first made that the small, bitter berries of the olive tree could be made edible by a complex curing process. Soaking in lye, rinsing, salting and preserving in oil or brine with herbs and other aromatics results in a unique, complex taste sensation – at once salty, bitter and pungent, with a hint of ripe sweetness. It is hardly surprising that cured olives quickly became a staple of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern diet.

Each olive-growing country produces its own style of olive, the variations depending on soil, climate and local tradition. Green olives are young fruit, harvested when they are still rock-hard and unripe. Left on the tree, they slowly ripen to a soft purple, and finally to rich black. From here, the curing process complete, there is a bewildering range of sizes, shapes, textures and flavours: big, juicy kalamata olives from Greece; small, intensely flavoured niçoise olives; garlicky, chilli-spiced olives found in the souks of Morocco: plump, almond-stuffed green olives from Spain.

Different regions also eat olives in very different ways. Countries to the east, such as Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, don’t really use olives in cooked dishes. They eat predominantly black olives as appetisers, side dishes, snacks and garnishes. In the west, countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Portugal, Italy and France make more use of green olives. They also like to use olives, both green and black, as an ingredient in many cooked dishes.

Selecting and storing olives

In the souks of the Middle East, you are absolutely expected to taste before you buy, and the best advice we can give for choosing olives anywhere in the world is to do just this. There are so many different sorts to choose from, and they vary in flavour and quality so much, that it really is important to taste them first. For these reasons too, it is much better to buy olives where they are sold loose rather than bottled.

As a very general rule, green olives tend to have a lighter, grassier flavour, with firmer flesh, which clings to the stone. Softer and juicier, black olives tend to have a stronger and more complex flavour. Olives are often sold flavoured with all sorts of herbs and aromatics – bay leaves, rosemary, fennel, lemon and orange peel are all popular.

Olives do not have to be kept refrigerated, as long as they are stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard. If you do prefer to keep them in the refrigerator, make sure you allow them to return to room temperature before serving, to bring out their flavour.

Using olives

If you intend to use olives in cooking, you run across the unavoidable chore of having to stone them. It is a fiddly job, but has to be done. Ready-stoned olives tend to be poorer quality rejects which may have been damaged during the harvesting or curing process. As a rule, the soft, squishy black olives are much easier to stone than green olives, which often leave a lot of their flesh behind on the stone. The quickest, but least delicate, way of stoning them is to give them a good sharp bash with a rolling pin, which splits them open. It should then be quite easy to pull the stone away. If you want to do a neater job, then carefully slice them lengthways with a sharp knife, twist them apart and pry the stone out with your fingernails.

As a rule, it is best to add olives to hot dishes, like braises and stews, at the end of cooking. This will ensure that they retain their shape and texture, and that their strong, salty flavour doesn’t overpower the dish.

Recipes in this Chapter

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