“Olives are one of our original foods, described by author Lawrence Durrell as having ‘a taste older than meat, older than wine, as old as cold water.’ They grow in many parts of the world, among them the Middle East, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, the south of France, Spain, Portugal, Algeria, Morocco, and our own California. Wherever they are found, the local people regard them as the ideal food for nibbling, with or without drinks, and they indeed rate as the most perfectly simple and simply perfect hors d’oeuvre known to man.” Beard on Food
Olive cultivation began in the Mediterranean region and western Asia more than 7000 years ago. They were grown commercially in Crete by 3000 BC and may have been the source of wealth of the Minoan civilization. Olives were sacred to the Greek goddess Athena, and appeared on Greek coinage. Mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey and in the Iliad, olive branches were used to crown victors in games and wars. Olive oil was used to anoint kings and athletes, was burned in temples, and provided the “eternal flame” at the original Olympics. Pliny the Elder describes an olive tree planted to give shade in the Roman Forum, and olives were found buried with Tutankhamun in his tomb.
Olives are mentioned more than thirty times in the Bible; it was an olive leaf that the dove brought back to Noah to prove that the flood was over and the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, is a noted Biblical landmark. Olives also appear in the Hebrew Bible and the Quran. Spanish colonists brought the olive to the New World, where it prospered along the dry Pacific coast, in what is now Chile and Peru, an area with a climate similar to the Mediterranean. More recently, olive cultivation began in California.
Mark Bittman, in his cookbook modestly titled The Best Recipes in the World, estimates that there are one billion olive trees in the world today, mostly growing in lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Their fruit is an ancient symbol of life, prosperity and peace, and the oil extracted from it is the world’s healthiest cooking oil.
Olives must be cured in oil, saltwater, lye or simply salt before they can be eaten because their skins contain a bitter chemical called oleuropin that makes them unpalatable when eaten directly from the tree. Dark olives are ripe and contain more oil, while green olives are unripe. As a result, while black olives can proceed directly to brining after harvest, green olives must first be soaked in a lye solution. The curing process effects their flavor and texture; the longer an olive is fermented in brine, the less bitter and more complex its flavor will become. Here are some of the most popular olive varieties:
o Manzanilla (a Spanish green olive, lye-cured then packed in salt and lactic acid brine)
o Picholine (a French green olive, salt-brine cured, with a subtle, lightly salty flavor)
o Kalamata (a Greek black olive, harvested fully ripe, with a vibrant flavor)
o Nicoise (a French black olive, harvested fully ripe, small in size, rich, nutty, mellow flavor)
o Liguria (an Italian black olive, salt-brine cured, with a vibrant flavor)
o Ponentine (an Italian black olive, salt-brine cured than packed in vinegar, mild in flavor)
o Gaeta (an Italian black olive, dry-salt cured then rubbed with oil, wrinkly in appearance, mild flavor)
o Lugano (an Italian black olive, usually very salty)
Unopened olives can be stored at room temperature up to 2 years. Once opened, they should be stored in their own liquid in a glass or other non-reactive container. They will last for several weeks in the refrigerator.