Olive Oil – Part 2, the Olive

olives, nutritional info, types, tapenade recipe

The fruit of the olive tree (Olea europea) has provided humans with olives since pre-Egyptian antiquity, but production of the oil was only done in Greece, Crete, centuries later. Olives had already been cultivated since the Chalcolithic period (aka the copper ages) in what is now modern day Jordan.
Whilst a small percentage of olives are eaten as is, most olives are turned into oil. Those eaten are preserved and used as table snacks, tapenades or as essential taste and texture improving constituents for many great culinary creations.
The naturally bitter fruit is fermented or cured in lye or brine. After picking, they are washed thoroughly in water to remove the oleuropein, a very bitter carbohydrate, or soaked in a solution of sodium hydroxide to speed matters up somewhat!

Olives are found in three basic colours: green, purple and black which merely indicate the time of picking.  There is no such thing as a green olive or a black olive – it is always the same olive picked at different times during the ripening process.  Green olives are harvested during the European autumn, the black a few months later when they are ripe and the purple are harvested in between.  The riper the olives are, the more oil there is to be had.
Green olives have a bitter, sharp taste despite the fact that they are often “cracked” first to induce a gentler taste, the blacks are fruity yet mellow. They are rarely packed in anything more complex than oil or brine.  The “American black” olives are not fermented and have a mild flavour.
There is a huge variety of olives and different countries produce different olives. In the next few weeks I will continue to elaborate and focus on the leading countries ending with an a comparison and discussion on who does a better job. Should there be a request to focus on any other particular country or countries, I will consider it. The most well known are the ones that are easily obtainable.  My favourite olives are the French nicoise, cailletier, picholine, lucques and the nyon which is always sold as a black and almost always dry cured in salt. In South Africa, near Cape Town there is a town called Franschoek, crawling with food, foodies, chefs and restaurants equal to and often better than the best in the world. There is quite a bit of the French varieties around. From Italy comes the Gaeta, a mild olive that is all too often flavoured, but when left alone it is exquisite and the taste of the olive triumphs.  The Moroccan oil-cured olive is a relatively new addition to my list of favourites – but only because I have just discovered them. The Spanish manzanilla is an olive but there is a dry sherry also known as manzanilla.   Both olive and sherry are unforgettable and the two, together simply delicious! I am in two minds about the Greek kalamata because if anyone other than a Greek tries to make them, they macerate the olive and that is not what the Greeks do. I mean, the Greeks gave us the olives – why, why, why can’t we just all do it EXACTLY like the Greeks do and leave our own interpretations of kalamata olives in a place where they can do no damage?  So, in the case of the Greek kalamata olive, I adore them when a Greek makes them but if anyone else tries, I would rather eat a carrot.  Can there be anything that imbues the soul with more energy than the experience of being in Greece, eating only olives with a really icy glass of good retsina before dinner?

That image comes to an abrupt halt when I reflect on my worst nightmare, the stuffed olive.  I have reached that magical moment in life where I have been liberated from the stuffed olive.  Never again will it mesmerize me into keeping an air headed dinner hostess happy. I am free and can truly say that I will not put a single one of those things in my mouth again. I no longer need to be sociably acceptable. I loathe the vile tasting little buggers and have never quite understood how and why anyone would want to stuff an olive, anyway.

Not satisfied with stuffing red pieces of pimiento into the thing, they now stuff anchovies, lemon, garlic, whole almonds and bits of fish. They don’t all taste the same – the pimiento tastes like a rancid tin, the anchovies and fish stuffed olives taste like cat food, the garlic is vile with the texture of a raw eye, the almond like a thin piece of tasteless soap and the lemon like a softened cough drop. While we are on the subject of bad olives, I have one more question that begs an answer – can someone please tell me who had the bright idea of packing olives with salty, factory made, feta squares into sealed impossible-to-open containers for transportation to food outlets?

Olives are rich in fiber, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins (A, B, C, D and E) as well as the minerals boron, calcium, iron, zinc etc as well as the  all important polyphenols and flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory properties.  To all women suffering from the effects of menopause – remember that the vitamin E in the olive helps relieve those hot flushes.
So, here’s some good advice for the weekend – buy an excellent bottle of Pinotage from the Stellenbosch area near Cape Town because all the best ones come from that region or if you can’t get hold of that because you live too far away, try a cold white Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a red Chianti with as many good olives as you can find and go on an olive binge. Simply for reasons of health, of course.
Part 3 will only appear next week since I have promised to write something for the four people on the planet that hate olives.  And I’m staying with two of them at they moment.

500 g pitted black olives, like Kalamata, Nicoise, or Gaeta (in plain form – no spicing, pickling etc)
75 grams capers, drained and rinsed
4 anchovy fillets, drained, rinsed and patted dry
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 good teaspoon Dijon mustard
5 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves finely chopped, stalk in the bin
3 good tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 lemon, juice and zest
1 tablespoon young balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons cognac or brandy
200 g good quality extra-virgin olive oil

Put the whole lot in the food processor and pulse to combine then proceed until mixture is coarsely pureed or to your taste. Check and correct seasoning and voila!


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