The Olives (Olea europaea of family Oleaceae in the order Lamiales) are fruiting trees of great importance to the nourishment and economies of peoples in the Mediterranean region and California. The fruit is high in oil rather than sugar so provides a great deal of energy, and the finest cooking and salad oil known to man. If that were not enough, the fruits can be prepared in many flavorful ways for inclusion in recipes and for eating in their own right.More on Lamiales.
General & History
Olives have been cultivated since before the dawn of history and were a critical crop to peoples all around the Mediterranean. Not only did oily olives provide a great deal of food energy, they grow well in soils that won't support most other crops.
They are touchy about climate though, and must have cold nights with warm days in the winter to set flowers. They are also frost tender which further limits where they can be grown. It's a safe bet though that olive trees have been planted in just about every area of the world to which they are suitable.
Unlike other vegetable oils, olive oil can be extracted by moderate pressure at room temperature and without the use of solvents which makes it easily available to peoples with limited technology. For early communities olive oil's importance as a cooking oil was paralleled by its use for illumination as lamp oil, by its medicinal applications and by its use in religious rituals.
One Italian king had millions of olive trees cut down because he felt they made life too easy for the peasants. He felt the natural order of things was for peasants to be poor and have to work hard. The financial impact on his life insurance carrier was immediate and decisive.
Today cured olives are a luxury rather than a survival necessity, but olive oil is still of great economic and culinary importance. Available in the wide range of quality and flavors we associate with wine, it is also a cooking oil that can withstand high temperatures and is resistant to oxidation and rancidity. It is, in fact, the only oil both sides of the fierce coconut oil vs. soy oil battle agree is healthy.Varieties
There are over 650 varieties of olive grown, and each may be cured in more than one way, which makes for a dizzying selection. Listed here are a few of the more common varieties found in commerce.
Because fresh olives are far too bitter to eat straight off the tree, the examples here are all for cured olives. Countries shown are typical, but olives of the same type and cure can be made in several other countries.
Pictured varieties are ones I've found in my local stores. Our infamous kidney bean in the pictures is there to help you judge the size of the olives.
Bella di Cerignola
In recent times many other olive varieties have been planted, and, as with California wine, boutique growers have developed cures similar to and fully competitive with the best imported products. The photo shows large "estate grown" cocktail olives stuffed with pimiento, garlic and jalapeno peppers, Mediterranean style cracked olives cured with red chili on the left and zatar (thyme) on the right, and black and green salad olives in the back.
California also produces olive oils that stand head-to-head with the very
best Italy offers. Pricing varies widely with grower and can get absurd if
some popular food pundit has just declared California oils "the best there is".
Chinese Black Olive -
[Wu lan; Canarium pimela syn. C. tramdenum]
This fruit is preserved in brine and used similarly to black ripe
Oleaceae olives but is not really an olive at all. It is the fruit of
a large resinous tree, related to the frankinsense tree, native to
Southeast Asia and southern China. The flesh is
relatively thin and the seed large and sharply pointed at both ends. Aside
from the brined fruit, the seed kernels inside the pits of this and
related species are sold as Canarium nut, Pili nut or Galip nut. The
photo specimens were purchased from a large Asian market in Los Angeles,
packed in brine.
Chinese White Olive -
[Nam liap, Samo chin, Kana (Thai); kan-lan (China); buah cana (Malay);
This olive shaped fruit is used similarly to Oleaceae olives but is
not really an olive at all. It is the fruit of a large resinous tree,
related to the frankinsense tree, native to Southeast Asia and southern
China. Why it is called "white" is unknown to me. The fruits are used in
cooking both fresh, where they are somewhat resinous, and preserved by
soaking in brine and drying. They are particularly popular in Thailand and
Vietnam. This fruit is also used in Asian herbal medicines and cosmetics.
Photo by Takeaway distributed under license Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike v3.0 unported.
Coquillos - see Niçoise.
Calmata - see Kalamata.
Cerignola - see Bella di Cerignola.
Green Olives are olives picked before they are ripe and cured in various ways. The common supermarket green olive in jars, seed-in or stuffed, is the Spanish Manzanilla and the larger ones are commonly Sevillano. Fresh picked green olives are often available in ethnic markets in California for those who wish to cure their own olives.
From the Greek region of Macedonia, this very large olive is normally
given a Fermented Lye Cure. These are often pitted
and stuffed. A smaller amount are given a cure in salt brine with citric
and ascorbic acid for about 3 months. This gives a very different flavor.
The photo specimens were typically 1.56 inch diameter and weighed 5/8
ounce. They were purchased from Trader Joes for 2016 US $2.29 for
9.88 ounces drained weight. Flavor and texture were very good.
Use these in American recipes but never European, Near Eastern or North
African where something more flavorful like Greek Dry
Moulin de Daudet
Queen Olive - see Sevillano.
Royal Olive (Victoria, Royal Greek)
Sevillano (Queen Olive)
Italian large green olives. They are given a natural
cure in salt brine and are often marinated with herbs. They may be pitted
and stuffed for use as cocktail olives.
Home Cured olives are generally black ripe or turning black and processed with lye. They are first soaked in a strong lye solution for several days, breaking an olive open occasionally to see if the lye has penetrated to the pit. When it has, they are soaked in several changes of salt brine until the lye has been leeched out. They are finally put up in jars in a strong salt brine. For use, they may require a soak in cold water to leech out some of the salt.
Lye Cured commercial canned olives are processed similar to the Home Cure. All the olives are picked green or nearly so, even those that will end up as black olives (to produce a firmer black olive). First they are soaked in a lye solution long enough to penetrate to the pits. For black olives air is bubbled through this solution causing the olives to darken. The final brine for black olives includes ferrous gluconate to intensify the black color. After canning, both black and green are pasteurized with steam. Canning and pasteurization allows a much less salty product than the home cured, or most other cures for that matter.
Fermented Lye Cure is generally used in Spain. Green olives are soaked in lye similar to the Home Cure but the brine soak stage lasts for about three months during which the olives ferment somewhat, giving them that unique Spanish flavor. They are then bottled and pasteureized with steam.
Dry Salt Cure results in soft chewy olives with a wrinkled appearance. The olives are first lightly crushed so the salt will penetrate, then layered in salt for about four weeks. When done they are rinsed with cold water and dried. Finally they are coated with olive oil after which they may be pasteurized. This cure is used for Dry Greek, Italian Gaeta and other Mediterranean olives.
Natural Cures are used for a number of Mediterranean olive varieties. One method is to soak the olives in cold water that is changed daily until the bitterness is leached out, after which they are cured in a salt brine for several months. A method used for Sicilian olives is to soak in a brine of salt and lactic acid for about a year. Kalmata, Amphissa, Nicoise, Picholine, Cerignola and Gaeta olives are generally soaked in a salt brine for about a year.Health Considerations
Warning: low salt olives such as lye cured Mission olives and many salad and cocktail olives will spoil once opened. They should be eaten within the day or refrigerated and eaten within a couple of days. Eating spoiled ones will provide you with an experience you will not forget. High salt dry and naturally cured olives do not present this danger.
Olives are high in oil, 13% or higher depending on type and cure, so they are higher in calories per ounce than most fruit. They are low in carbohydrates, typically less than 6%.
Today, olive fruit is a luxury item and eaten in relatively small quantity, but olive oil is of great culinary and health importance. Since the oil is the dominant aspect of the fruit anyway, we refer you to our Oils and Health article for the details.