Little green olives stuffed with pimento. Growing up, that’s the only olive I ever knew. Years later I had the good fortune to travel throughout Greece, beginning with a stop in Corfu. My friends and I toured the island on rented motorbikes and stopped at a hillside café — really just someone’s backyard. We were served a plate filled with chunks of cucumber and different kinds of olives. They were definitely not my mother’s olives — not to mention that they were accompanied by glasses of ouzo!
Did you know there are hundreds of varieties of olives? They grow on trees — trees that can live thousands of years — and are native to the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa. They thrive on the hillsides of Spain, Italy and Greece. About five varieties are grown in the United States, most commercially. Olives are a staple in the Mediterranean diet, which research shows is a healthy way to eat.
“I tend to think of olives as mostly a garnish of sorts, not really a food, but in the Mediterranean diet they are indeed a food, says Kitty Broihier, a registered dietitian and member of the Maine Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Olives are rich in phytonutrients that exhibit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.”
Green versus black
Green olives are picked before they’re ripe and black olives, after — generally, the darker the olive the riper it is. A so-called black olive can range from a light brown to red and purple to deep black.
Why olives are cured
No matter what color or how ripe, olives are usually too bitter to eat straight from the tree and need to be cured first.
Curing with water or brine
The more traditional way of curing olives is to submerge them in vats of fresh water or seasoned and salted brine, which brings out the natural flavors.
Curing with dry salt
Raw olives are rubbed with salt and left to cure for weeks or months. When the salt is removed, the olives are coated with olive oil so they won’t get too dry, but they tend to look wrinkled. Dry-cured olives tend to have intense flavors.
Curing with lye
This is the method most large commercial producers use because it saves time and money. It also takes away most of the olives’ natural flavors.
Watch the salt!
“If you’re one of those folks who needs to watch sodium, you may want to go the olive oil route instead of the olive route when following a Mediterranean eating plan,” cautions Kitty.
The truth about Kalamata olives
A Kalamata olive must be grown in Kalamata to be called a Kalamata
If you see olives labeled “Kalamata style or Kalamata type, don’t be fooled! Kalamatas are Greek olives — THE most popular. They’re grown in the valley of Messina near the town of Kalamata and have a distinctive almond shape and dark hue. After they are picked — hand picked, of course, because that’s the best way — they are cured in a red wine vinegar brine. Make sure what you buy is authentic.
12 great ways to use olives
These serving tips come from Oldways, an organization that “raises awareness of Mediterranean foods and flavors and the remarkably healthy Med Diet lifestyle.”
Step 1: Put the olive on a cutting board and firmly press down on it with the side of a large chef’s knife. You should feel the pit begin to pop out. If not, use the knife to apply a gentle rocking motion and roll the olive back and forth a few times.
Step 2: When the olive splits open, pull out the pit.
Olive taste test
I paid a visit to Micucci Grocery in Portland last year and had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Carpenter, who has sold a lot of very good olives. She introduced me to a particularly delicious one that had a fruity flavor. Take a look at this short video to find out what it was.
Fruit or vegetable?
Technically, olives are a fruit, but in the culinary world, are usually treated as a vegetable. How do you like your olives?