Growing & Curing
Olives grow on gnarled, silver-leaved trees. Originally, the olive tree is from the Mediterranean. These days olives are also grown in the United States (California, New Mexico, and Arizona), as well as South America. According to the reference, Starting with Ingredients, olive trees live an average of 300 to 600 years. I learned from Mark Bittman that olives contain a chemical called oleuropin, which has a very bitter flavor. Curing eliminates this problem. The longer an olive is allowed to cure in its brine, the more complex and deep its flavor becomes. An immature olive is green, and darkens as it ripens, eventually turning black. Often, olives are picked green for curing, while the ones meant for olive oil are allowed to ripen fully and turn black.
Here are six varieties that are widely available in the U.S. I hope this inspires you to explore the many other varieties of olives from all over the world.
According to the book, Starting with Ingredients, this Greek olive is grown near its namesake town, Kalamata. It is widely available in the United States. Kalamata olives are picked ripe and cured in a salty brine, often with red wine vinegar, or sold packed in olive oil. They are almond-shaped usually purple in color. The texture is soft and the flavor is fruity.
The Picholine is a French olive with a green color, firm texture, and mild, salty flavor. Picholine olives are excellent for keeping in the pantry- perfect for snacking on as an aperitif. They are also grown in the United States and Morocco.
Hailing from Provence, Niçoise olives are famous for their rich, nutty flavor. These small olives with big pits are harvested fully ripe and have a dark purplish-brown color. Niçoise olives are less salty than others, because they are cured in brine and packed in olive oil.
These Moroccan olives are actually dry-cured in salt, which gives them a shriveled appearance. They are stored in olive oil. Moroccan olives are harvested ripe and have a jet-black color. Their texture is meaty and soft, while they have a salty, spicy flavor.
This olive is grown in Sicily, near its namesake town, Castelvetrano. The lye curing process results in its bright green color. Castelvetrano olives have a firm texture and buttery flavor. They hold up well to cooking in a braised meat dish, but you can also enjoy them as a table olive with charcuterie.
Also known as Bella di Cerignola, these olives can be black, green, or red in color and are large in size. Whether they are green or black depends on ripeness, but the red ones are artificially colored. According to The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion, the green Cerignola olives are mild and sweet and the black ones are soft and more deeply flavored. Reading Starting with Ingredients, I learned that Cerignola olives come from the southern Adriatic coast of the Puglia region of Italy. They are great for snacking on at the table, and taste delicious marinated in herbs or other flavorings.
Cooking with Olives
Olives can be enjoyed raw at the table with nuts, cheese, and charcuterie. They are also delicious sautéed with aromatics like garlic, herbs, or citrus zest. Serve them as a side dish on their own, or pair olives with summer produce like tomatoes, zucchini, squash, carrots, or melons. Use olives to add depth of flavor in salads, pastas, and stews. Minced olives are found in tapanades, pastas, and vinaigrettes for grilled meat and fish. Tapanade is also delicious spread over baguette or slathered on a sandwich.
- Cheese: mozarella, burrata, goat cheese, other soft cheeses
- Summer produce: melons, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, artichoke, onion, shallot
- Seafood: fish-especially white-fleshed types like sea bass, cod, halibut; scallops and shrimp
- Herbs: basil, thyme, oregano, mint, parsley, cilantro, sage, lavender, rosemary
- Other briny, pickled ingredients like peppers, capers, anchovy
- Meat: beef, lamb, game, poultry
- Spices: cumin, coriander, sesame seeds, fennel seed, crushed red pepper flakes
- Citrus: lemon and orange
- Vinegars: especially red wine or sherry
- Cannellini beans