Olives: The Noble Fruit's Place in History and at the Table
The olive has such a long and beloved history in the Mediterranean that, to an Italian, olive trees almost seem holy. From the olive's place in early mythology to its current culture; its many varieties, colors, flavors and curing methods; and its perfect versatitlity on the antipasto board, there is so much to say about the "noble fruit"-- and this lyrical essay is a great place to begin. We'll even give you instructions for curing your own olives at home, in case you have a tree in your yard!
There is something surprisingly modest about olive trees, given their noble history and legendary reputation, going back far before biblical times. For an American, the first time you meet the tree in person, you may well be shocked by the extraordinary ordinariness of it. Its shape and proportions are remarkably reminiscent of a dowdy, good-natured housewife - the kind who greets you in a tattered apron, with a disarming smile. Quite often, there is nothing particularly breathtaking or impressive about the tree's height or girth; nothing striking or exotic about its leaves or fragrance. And if you ever get a chance to climb one to pick its fruit - which is remarkably easy to do, given how short and accommodating the younger trees are - the feeling will no doubt remind you of climbing into the lap of a favorite old aunt, the one who'd benignly allow you to yank at her necklace without a hint of protest or resistance.
But for an Italian, as for most Mediterranean people, the olive tree has been seen throughout history as almost holy - a symbol of peace, victory, and the endurance of life itself - evoking feelings of harmony, vitality, and health. The ancient trees grow in wondrous, tangled ways, with trunks resembling characters in fairy tales. The olive tree is one of the heartiest of all trees on the planet: able to survive salt water, adapting itself to almost any sunny and temperate environment, able to thrive in most soils, retaining its leaves year round, and living in some cases more than a thousand years, occasionally bearing fruit for centuries. In Greek mythology, Zeus pronounced Athena the victor in a competition because it was she who had bestowed upon mankind the most useful plant of all: the olive tree. These ancient trees, which originated in the region that is today called Turkey, have had a huge impact on all the important civilizations of the Mediterranean for at least 4000 years - providing food, medicinal potions, and the most nourishing of oils. Today there are 800 million olive trees growing on Earth, and no less than 500 different "cultivars," or varieties of olives.
The harvesting of olives is almost always done by hand - slow, labor-intensive work, usually done without mechanical devices of any kind except perhaps a rake. Olives are easily bruised and must be handled gently, especially "table olives," meaning those intended to be eaten - as antipasti, condiments, or used in sauces - as opposed to crushed into oil. Most of the table olives we eat come from Italy, Greece, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and California. The varieties of table olives harvested in the Mediterranean area are particularly rich - such as the Picholine and Niçoise from France; the Calamata from Greece; and the Gaeta, Taggiasca and Bella di Cerignola cultivars from Italy.
Depending on the cultivar, the shape and texture of olives vary greatly - from tiny spherical orbs to large, plump ovals. Their colors vary as well, but this has to do with how long they have been allowed to ripen on the trees, not with the cultivar: the fruit starts out a yellowish green, then during the many months of ripening on the tree, they slowly turn to green, then light brown, then a dark purplish and eventually black - though some varieties are green when considered ripe. When picking olives to make into oil, the fruit must have reached the right level of ripeness to ensure good quality oil with a low level of acidity. But the curing processes used in making table olives renders olives edible at all the different stages of ripeness, thus providing their great variety of color, textures and tastes.
The olive is undeniably one of the most celebrated fruits of all time. Its taste, virtues and mystique have been praised in various religious texts, and have been extolled by philosophers, poets and writers down through the centuries - epitomized perhaps by Lawrence Durrell when he rhapsodizes:
"The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palms, the gold breads, the bearded heroes, the wine, the ideas, the ships, the moonlight, the winged gorgons, the bronze men, the philosophers - all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent smell of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water..."
Given how beloved the olive is, it's ironic how intolerably bitter this uncured fruit is. Unless you have grown up around the trees and developed the taste for its fruit since childhood, it is simply impossible to pluck an olive off the tree and eat it. Only after long, elaborate curing processes and marinating do olives acquire their exquisite taste. How this wondrous alchemy - on a par with the transformation of grapes into wine or barley into whiskey - was sought and discovered must contribute in part to the mystery and allure of the olive.
The processes by which olives are made edible - and delicious - vary widely: they can be water cured, brine cured, lye cured, oil cured, dry cured or sun dried, like tomatoes. Preserving them in brine (salted water) is the most common way to eliminate the bitterness. This process may take from six weeks or up to nine months or longer. The curing time varies depending on the variety of olives, and the desired texture and taste. Today in Italy, olives are still cured in thousands of households in central and southern Italy as they have been for generations - each family believing that they hold the secret to the perfect way of curing and preserving their olives. One popular method is to soak the olives in plain water for ten or more days, changing the water every day. Then, boil a solution of salt water - 1 cup of salt to each quart of water - for a few minutes, and store the olives immersed in this cooled solution in sterile glass jars for six months or so. If you add a clove of garlic, some bay leaves, thyme, oregano marjoram and some chili peppers to each jar, the olives will taste absolutely delicious.
Today olives are available in the market in a variety ways: natural and pitted, seasoned with a range of herbs, spices, hot peppers and even lemon and orange zests. Olives are a natural product, a guilt-free nutritious food with an exotic, sophisticated taste. Because their salty, dark flavor complements so many alcoholic beverages - wine and aperitifs, and, most famously of course, vodka and gin - olives are standard fare at cocktail hours and celebratory gatherings. Olives stuffed with cheese, peppers, anchovies, or almonds provide a special panache to such occasions.