So many posts on our blog about olive oil – where’s the love for the olive itself?
They’re not just a green-and-red ball resting on the side of your mind’s image of a martini. Olives – that is, the 10 percent of the world’s production that we eat as whole fruits – are absolutely delicious, and can bring your tapas or dinner to a whole new level.
Olives are fruits that come from the hardy Olea europaea tree, one that can live and bear fruit for a thousand years! Native to the eastern Mediterranean, olives were likely first used (and of course, are still used) for their oil; as much as 30% of an olive’s pulpy outer layer is oil. As mentioned above, only ten percent of olives grown end up as edibles – the rest goes into our pantry staple, olive oil, according to my go-to food historian, Harold McGee. As I write this during Boston’s third snowstorm in two weeks, the word ‘harvest’ does not seem like a relevant concept – but across the pond, this year’s harvest of olives (which happens in late fall and winter) is being pressed into the freshest, unfiltered oil. Yum.
Anyway. Have you ever tasted a fresh olive, right from the tree? Probably not. Olives taste extremely unpalatable this way, containing an abundance of the bitter substance oleuropein. Like other fruits, olives are first green, and eventually change to a dark purplish color, losing some of their bitterness as they ripen. The olives we eat can be anywhere on the spectrum from green to purple to black, and all of them, no matter the ripeness, go through some sort of soaking process to leach out the bitter compounds and make them tasty. Historically, several changes of water was a slow but successful method; however, commercially today, olives can take a bath in a simple brine, get packed in salt and then olive oil, or get dunked in an alkaline lye solution before brining. A wrinkly olive indicates that it was salt-cured, and therefore definitely delicious. (Thanks to Serious Eats for this crash course in olive curing.)
To pit, or not to pit?
Occasionally we stock pitted olives (olives without their large pits or central seeds), but for the most part we carry unpitted olives. Pitted olives can be more convenient, but there is some controversy over the preparation of olives for the pitting process itself. Most gourmands consider the unpitted olive to offer a purer, more nuanced olive flavor. If you don’t have a special olive pitter, you can use a large chef’s knife to press down on an olive and push out the pit, or just remove them as you eat them.
At the Cambridge shop we always have several varieties of olives on hand for your next appetizer spread or recipe, ranging in flavor and texture. We also make a fresh batch of our house ‘olive mista’ containing several of these varieties and more, plus piparras (Basque pickled peppers) and other aromatics for a convenient and aesthetic snack. Here’s a rundown of the types of olives you’ll find at the cheese counter:
Alfonso. These purple giants have a medium-firm texture and a lot of meat. Cured in red wine and red wine vinegar, Alfonsos will have a touch of sourness. We usually have these on hand for our house olive mista.
Cassee de Baux. An origin-controlled olive from Provence in the south of France, these muted green beauties are cured with fennel seeds, stalks, and flowers for a prominent flavor.
Castelvetrano. Easily the cheesemongers’ favorite olive. This eye-catching bright green Italian olive is crunchy and not too tart. A great starter olive!
Kalamata. The famous deep-purple Greek olive packs an outstanding, wine-y flavor in a small package. We get these superior kalamatas from My Olive Tree, a small company that also makes award-winning olive oil in southern Greece.
Ligurian. Also known as Taggiasca olives, these are delicate purplish-brown snacks are cultivated in the northwest of Italy. Known for a fruity but mild flavor, they can add complexity to your next bread, pasta sauce, or vegetable dish. A staple of our olive mista, but ask your cheesemonger if you’d like to take some on their own.
Lucques. These are lovely lime-green olives with a slight crescent shape. Like castelvetranos, they have a bright and crunchy flavor, but with a touch more butteriness.
Nicoise. These olives must come from Nice, France as specified by their AOC, or origin-controlled, designation. Small, brownish-black olives have a delicate texture and flavor, perfect for appetizers. Find these both in our cheese case and in our house olive mista.
Picholines. Rich and buttery, oblong pale green olives originating in the south of France. Try these as a snack for their smoother texture and nutty flavor.
Oil-cured Provencal. In Provence in the south of France, olives and olive oil are a serious subject. These classic wrinkly olives give way to juicy, flavorful flesh that pairs well with chicken and fish.
Red Bella di Cerignola. At the supermarket olive bar, cerignola olives are the BIG ones. These giant red beauties are superbly meaty with a firm texture. Not too salty or winey, you’ll find these in our olive mista.
Lou Pistou. This mix gives you French green and purple olives, cornichons, and pearl onions all in one. Even if you don’t see it in the case, ask if we have any on hand.
Before you reach for a bag of potato chips, try a juicy, fruity, briney olive to satisfy your snacking craving! If you have never featured them on a cheese or charcuterie plate, you may realize how their flavors and textures pleasantly cut through the decadent savory and fatty hors d’oeuvres. Or simply chop them up and add them to anything you’re cooking for a new layer of flavor. (Same goes for capers!) We will always love and cherish our olive oils, but the original source of those bright, rich flavors come from olives, our new favorite snack.
Leah Wang is still a farmer in Maine (in her heart and mind), but loves being a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.