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OLIVES - 101

Olives are the rock stars of Mediterranean cuisine - providing us with heart-healthy fat from their juices, and delicious and nutritious flavor from their fruits.  Olives are loaded with phyto(plant)nutrients naturally, and depending on the variety, stage of maturity and post-harvest processing, nutrient content shifts.

The use of olive oil and olives in a Mediterranean diet has been linked to improved outcomes in weight control, reduction in diabetes risk, and improvement of cholesterol and triglyceride profiles.  In addition, the biophenols in olives help reduce blood pressure and plaque formation in arteries. Olives are also a great source of copper, iron, dietary fiber and vitamin E.

Olives contain compounds called phenols and terpenes - phenols are antioxidants, protecting DNA in our cells from free radicals, and terpenes have been shown in some animal models to have anti-cancer activity.

Olives also contain anti-inflammatory properties - specifically, oleacanthal mimics the action of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, and olive oil added to the diet of those suffering from arthritis often improves pain management.

Unfortunately, the phytonutrients of olives are altered with processing and curing, so each oil and each fruit may have a different nutritional profile. The answer: eat lots of varieties, regularly!

Although savory, olives are officially a fruit - in fact, a special variety called a drupe. Drupes are more familiar to us as stone or pitted fruits - like mangos, cherries, peaches, plums, etc. But olives, and even almonds and pistachios, are drupes too.

Hundreds of varieties of olives exist, and they are all linked botanically with the designation Olea europea.  Although they mostly thrive in Italy, Greece and Spain, they can be founds in different parts of Asia and Africa.  Olive trees are extremely tenacious, with the oldest recorded tree standing after 2000 years!  Evidence of olive tree existence date back almost 8000 years, but it took a while for olives to make their way to our shores - it's estimated that occurred in the 1500-1700's.  There are over 25 million acres of olive trees worldwide, with Spain being the largest producer, followed by Italy and Greece. That's 800 million trees, people!

What's fascinating is that 90% of olives harvested are used for oil, and only 10% for consumption.  And unlike other drupes, you can't just casually pick and olive and consume it.  Olives contain a high concentration of oleuropein, a very bitter phytonutrient.  So for olives to be palatable, they must be cured - either in water, brine, salt or lye.

Water curing is just that - soaking olives for weeks at a time in water.  This method still leaves olives that are bitter tasting, as water can't extract the oleuropein very efficiently.

Brine curing involves soaking olives for months in a highly concentrated salt solution. Because this process is so lengthy, the olives undergo some fermentation, releasing lactic and/or acetic acids, which then allow the migration of the oleuropein into the brine. This results in a sweeter, less bitter olive. Typically Greek and Sicilian olives are cured this way.

Dry or salt-curing involves covering olives directly in salt, and used for olives that will be stored for a long time. Dry cured olives typically undergo some shrinkage and have wrinkly skins and intense flavor.  Dry cured olives may subsequently be stored in red wine vinegar or olive oil to continue their preservation and add flavor.

Lye-curing involves soaking olive in an alkali solution of sodium hydroxide (NaOH for you chemistry fans) often up to 4-5 times to eventually cure the olive from the outside, through the flesh and down to the pit.  Dark style and green olives are good examples. This is a faster process and helps get commercial olives out to market quickly. Part of this process may involve bubbling oxygen into the solution at the latter part of curing to darken the olives to a homogenous black color (the notorious Thanksgiving olives-on-the-fingers are good examples).

Lastly, if you are shopping in your local market's olive bar, make sure you go to one with high turnover, so the olives, and their fillings, are fresh. Avoid olives with bruising or soft spots, and make sure that all the olives you see are generously submerged in brine. Try a few pieces of several varieties, and enjoy the round the world experience!  Remember, these little gems are good for you, good for your heart, and good on pizza!

Below are a few typical varieties you may see at your market or deli. Enjoy!

 
  MISSION OLIVES   Born in the USA, Mission olives may have originally come from Spain - but even Ancestry.com or 23&Me can't verify that. Somehow nature made it possible for these olives to fit precisely on little fingers - one of my earliest memories of Mission olives!  These beauties are typically grown in California, and are usually the source of our local olive oil. Those that are sold commercially are either the black variety (oil-cured) or green (brine-cured) varieties.   The green pimiento-stuffed olives create the magic in a martini, and the black varieties are as at home on a relish tray as chopped and mixed with cream cheese at tea time.

MISSION OLIVES

Born in the USA, Mission olives may have originally come from Spain - but even Ancestry.com or 23&Me can't verify that. Somehow nature made it possible for these olives to fit precisely on little fingers - one of my earliest memories of Mission olives!

These beauties are typically grown in California, and are usually the source of our local olive oil. Those that are sold commercially are either the black variety (oil-cured) or green (brine-cured) varieties. 

The green pimiento-stuffed olives create the magic in a martini, and the black varieties are as at home on a relish tray as chopped and mixed with cream cheese at tea time.

 
  CASTELVETRANO   Think Kermit-the-Frog and you have nailed the color of these sweet, fruity olives from Sicily. They are almost perfectly round, with buttery flesh and are one of Italy's most popular snacking olives.  I love them in light summer fish stews - think cod, wine, a little tomato, fennel, sweet onion, oranges/lemons and these beauties.  Since they are so buttery and almost sweet, they are also a perfect counterpoint to a salty cheese like Sheep feta or Pecorino, with a crisp Pinot Gris or Grigio!

CASTELVETRANO

Think Kermit-the-Frog and you have nailed the color of these sweet, fruity olives from Sicily. They are almost perfectly round, with buttery flesh and are one of Italy's most popular snacking olives.

I love them in light summer fish stews - think cod, wine, a little tomato, fennel, sweet onion, oranges/lemons and these beauties.

Since they are so buttery and almost sweet, they are also a perfect counterpoint to a salty cheese like Sheep feta or Pecorino, with a crisp Pinot Gris or Grigio!

 
  MANZANILLA   Manzanillas are like the Oreo of Spain - often stuffed due to their size and football-like shape.  Popular fillings include pimientos, almonds, or even whole cloves of garlic.  These are brine-cured olives, and as a result are salty, and on the verge of smoky.  I love these, stuffed or naked, with some beautiful charcuterie, smoky red peppers and Spanish cheese like Manchego.  Don't forget some crusty bread and a good Tempranillo!      

MANZANILLA

Manzanillas are like the Oreo of Spain - often stuffed due to their size and football-like shape.  Popular fillings include pimientos, almonds, or even whole cloves of garlic.  These are brine-cured olives, and as a result are salty, and on the verge of smoky.

I love these, stuffed or naked, with some beautiful charcuterie, smoky red peppers and Spanish cheese like Manchego.  Don't forget some crusty bread and a good Tempranillo!

 

 

 
  KALAMATA   Kalamatas are the king of olive bars and tapenades - coming in 50 shades of purple, they are red wine, oil or vinegar cured, soft and salty and packed with flavor. As you can see from the photo, they get a little beat up when bought with the pits removed, but they are much easier to transform into tapenades when purchased this way.  Originally from Greece, these olives must be picked by hand to avoid bruising!  I love them sprinkled into Greek salads, thrown on to pizzas, eaten straight out of hand, or even chopped up and sprinkled over roasted brussels or cauliflower!

KALAMATA

Kalamatas are the king of olive bars and tapenades - coming in 50 shades of purple, they are red wine, oil or vinegar cured, soft and salty and packed with flavor. As you can see from the photo, they get a little beat up when bought with the pits removed, but they are much easier to transform into tapenades when purchased this way.  Originally from Greece, these olives must be picked by hand to avoid bruising!

I love them sprinkled into Greek salads, thrown on to pizzas, eaten straight out of hand, or even chopped up and sprinkled over roasted brussels or cauliflower!

  LIGURIAN    The Ligurian region of Italy butts up to France, and is the site where these tiny olives.  They are typically cured with bay leaves, thyme and rosemary, and have a highly concentrated aroma and flavor.  Ligurian cuisine is thought to be the ultimate expression of the Mediterranean diet - which includes native olive oil pressed from these and other local varietals.  I think I'll just sit in a cafe chair in Cinque Terra, sip a campari and soda, and enjoy a few bites of these olives!  [Photograph:   Vicky Wasik ]

LIGURIAN

The Ligurian region of Italy butts up to France, and is the site where these tiny olives.  They are typically cured with bay leaves, thyme and rosemary, and have a highly concentrated aroma and flavor.

Ligurian cuisine is thought to be the ultimate expression of the Mediterranean diet - which includes native olive oil pressed from these and other local varietals.

I think I'll just sit in a cafe chair in Cinque Terra, sip a campari and soda, and enjoy a few bites of these olives!

[Photograph:  Vicky Wasik]

  GORDAL   Gordals are the oompa-loompa of Spain - gorda literally means "fat" in Spanish - and their roundness makes them perfect for stuffing.  Their texture is meaty, and they pair well with Spanish hams, a dry red wine, or your favorite Tapas.  Often I'll take a variety of Spanish olives and put them in a saucepan with 1/2 cup olive oil, add the rind of an orange, a couple of cloves of garlic, a dried red pepper, a branch of fresh thyme and a splash of sherry vinegar.  Simmer for a few minutes and let the olives cool in this mixture. Strain and use the oil for dipping bread or topping your favorite cheese or pasta.  You can elevate any olive this way.  [Photograph:   Vicky Wasik ]

GORDAL

Gordals are the oompa-loompa of Spain - gorda literally means "fat" in Spanish - and their roundness makes them perfect for stuffing.  Their texture is meaty, and they pair well with Spanish hams, a dry red wine, or your favorite Tapas.

Often I'll take a variety of Spanish olives and put them in a saucepan with 1/2 cup olive oil, add the rind of an orange, a couple of cloves of garlic, a dried red pepper, a branch of fresh thyme and a splash of sherry vinegar.  Simmer for a few minutes and let the olives cool in this mixture. Strain and use the oil for dipping bread or topping your favorite cheese or pasta.  You can elevate any olive this way.

[Photograph:  Vicky Wasik]