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 in a hillside cafe? – really just someone’s back yard. 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 heart healthy way to eat.
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. No matter what color or how ripe, olives are usually too bitter to eat straight from the tree and need to be cured first.
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. 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 is the method most large commercial producers use because it saves time and money. It also takes away most of the olives’ natural flavors.
A little olive trivia: 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 – and they are cured in a red wine vinegar brine. Make sure what you buy is authentic.
Here’s how to pit an olive by hand:
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.
I paid a visit to Micucci Grocery in Portland recently and had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Carpenter, who sells a lot of very good olives. She introduced me to a particularly delicious one that had a fruity flavor. To find out what it was, visit the Catching Health blog at dianeatwood.com and watch my interview with Karen. Search under olives. And by the way, they’re a fruit.
Diane Atwood writes the blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood, which received a Gold Lamplighter Award from the New England Society for Healthcare Communications and a Golden Arrow Award from the Maine Public Relations Council. Find it at catchinghealth.com.