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Frequently Asked Questions

Olives 101


Defining what makes a fruit a fruit and what makes a vegetable a vegetable can be pretty tricky. In fact, early in the twentieth century it took a Supreme Court decision to clarify which category the tomato fell into.

Olives are fruits, but not just any fruit – it's one of the most ancient and beloved fruits originating from the rich soil of the Mediterranean basin. For centuries the oil of the olive has been pressed and used for cooking, preserving, medicinal and cosmetic applications. The humble flesh of the olive may be cooked or eaten raw, but never straight off the tree.

Until it’s cured in some manner, the olive is so bitter it’s inedible – making it peculiar in the fruit world. Most fruits are delicious right off the plant and require little more than a quick strip of the peel before consumption. But until it’s pickled and cured, an olive is just plain horrible.

Once cured, a plump, perfect olive has a complex flavor profile that enthusiasts describe in a similar way to how wine enthusiasts talk about the grape. Olives may be nutty or have a hint of chocolate or bitter orange. They may be salty, briny, meaty, taste slightly of smoke or taste sharp like a fat bite of lime peel. In other words, olives are delicious!

Olives, like peaches and plums, are botanically classified as a drupe, a fruit containing a hard pit that has one or more seeds on the inside. Other common drupes include cherries, mangos, and even coconuts.

Olive trees do best in warm, dry climates, and thrive particularly well in the Mediterranean basin: southern Europe, Turkey, and North Africa. The tree's olives and resulting oil were good for eating at least a thousand years ago, and still carry the same benefits today. After olives are picked at certain stages of development (green or black), they're pickled, cured, or even dried before consumption.

Popular variations of green and black olives include Kalamta, Manzanilla and Nicoise. A green olive isn't a different kind of olive – it's just an under-ripened black olive. Olives turn black when they're fully ripe, but they can be picked and prepared for consumption well before the final stage of ripeness. Luckily, a green olive tastes a lot better than most unripe fruit.

But, olives are great for more than just snacking. When pressed, their olive oil is the perfect companion for cooking any meal, drizzling over bread or even strengthening and moisturizing hair, skin and nails. A versatile, multipurpose fruit, olives are a fruit that is truly good for you!

Olive oil is the pure oil obtained directly from the olive itself. To truly be classified as olive oil, the liquid cannot be mixed with any other kind of oil--it must be completely unadulterated.

Because of the wide variety of olives available, there are also a wide variety of olive oils, with the most popular being virgin and extra-virgin. Virgin olive oil is made from olives that were never synthetically treated. While virgin olive oil is pure, extra virgin olive oil is the purest. As the highest and most flavorful classification of olive oil, the label is not easily obtained. The oil must undergo both a chemical test and a taste test by the International Olive Council to ensure that the flavor is perfectly flawless.

Olive oil has long been praised for its health benefits. It is a key component of the famed Mediterranean diet, a high-vegetable diet that mimics a traditionally Greek way of eating and living. Physicians have found that those who consume such a diet have healthier heart rates and longer lives.

Olive oil is good for more than just a dip for bread, too. One of its most popular used is for frying or sautéing food. It is also a major ingredient in many recipes and marinades. Olive oil is the perfect ingredient to hold together dough for bagels, bread or empanadas. But beyond these basics, olive oil is gaining popularity in less expected foods. Olive oil cakes and pies with olive oil crust appear on many gourmet menus. Even olive oil ice cream is gaining popularity.

Olive oil is also a fantastic ingredient for skin and hair care. Olive oil is a natural moisturizer and helps prevent skin aging. It's used in many commercially available products, but you can use extra virgin olive oil as is, in your very own kitchen. A few drops can moisturize cuticles and nails, remove eye makeup, or soothe dry skin. You can even rub olive oil through your scalp and hair, and then shampoo it out for a deep conditioning treatment. The ancient Romans used to rub down with olive oil after exiting the baths!

Having a bottle of olive oil, particularly extra virgin olive oil, will bring new benefits to your eating and hygiene habits, and new flavor to your meals. It's no wonder that people have been making it for so many centuries!

 

If someone who'd never tried an olive were to ask you what one tasted like, how would you respond? Or maybe you've never had an olive yourself, and would like to know? It's a hard answer to formulate. Olives are salty yet fruity, strong-flavored yet smooth. They don't quite fit into any of the usual categories or flavor profiles. There are so many varieties of olives that it’s hard to summarize their overall flavor, but it's worth a try.

Olives, unlike many fruits, cannot be eaten straight off the tree. They must be cured before they're fit for consumption. The ingredients and techniques used in this curing process can affect the resulting taste. Olives that are cured using a lot of salt, like Kalamata olives, will have a saltier taste, while olives cured in brine will be more acidic.

Olives are also picked at different stages of ripeness, which also impacts the taste. Olives that are cured while they are still green have a denser texture and a more bitter flavor than their riper, black counterparts. But between the curing process, the olive's stage of ripeness, where the olives are grown and what kind of tree they come from – the olive taste can vary immensely. Some olives are very smooth and mellow, while others are pungent enough to elicit a cough.

To return to the question: how would you describe an olive to someone who's never had one? Some of the most common words used to describe olive taste are salty, fruity, pungent, acidic, smooth, bitter and mellow. But experience is the greatest teacher. Sampling a few olive types is the best way to truly know the olive taste.

Most people know about green olives and black olives. But what else is out there? The variety of olives within the generalized "green" and "black" categories is enough to be almost overwhelming at first. To help you out, let's examine the differences.

Green Olives

You're probably familiar with green olives, which are denser and more bitter than the black variety. But they're technically still the same olive. Green olives are unripe, picked before they have the chance to grow darker and softer. Many people prefer the olives at this less ripe point in their development.

Within green olives there are many sub-varieties, all of which are tasty for different purposes. Tiny, green Arbequiza olives, for instance, have what the Cook's Thesaurus describes as "a mild, smoky flavor." These are hard to come by in the United States, but Manzanilla olives make a good substitute. Manzanilla olives are the green olives you typically see stuffed with pimientos or garlic. Sweet, large Italian Cerignollas are also a member of the green olive family, though they come in black as well. Auraco olives have a rosemary flavor. Bright green, flavorful Luques olives have a briny taste. Sicilian olives are sour in flavor, and their large size makes them perfect for stuffing with all kinds of savory fillings, or even nuts and cheeses. There are many more varieties out there, but these are a great starting point for cooking, tasting, and general olive enjoyment.

Black Olives

Black olives, some of which are considered purple, are the riper counterpart to green olives--they stay on the tree and darken before being cured. When most people think of black olives, they think of mission olives, the kind you might typically see in salad bars or on pizza. These are salty olives without a very intense flavor. Many people are also familiar with Kalamata olives, a very flavorful and salty type of Greek olive.

But there are a number of black olive varieties beyond these. Alphonso olives are cured in wine, giving them a tart flavor and a purple hue. Amphissa olives share this purplish color. Empeltre olives, a Spanish variety, are sherry-soaked. Moroccan cured olives are very salty and wrinkly, and best used in cooking. Nicoise olives, commonly found in Salade Nicoise, are small and sour. Small, Italian Gaeta olives can either be salt cured and wrinkled or brine cured and smooth.

 

No food is as quintessentially Mediterranean as the olive. Olive trees and olive products have shaped the region’s economy and culture for millennia. In recent centuries, however, the rest of the world has also become more and more fond of the noble, sun-kissed fruit.

The Right Climate

Olive trees need abundant sunshine and cannot withstand hard freezes. Yet they also require a cold season of semi-dormancy, during which they switch gears from nourishing leaves and limbs to setting fruit. In other words, the countries of the Mediterranean basin -- southern Europe,
Turkey, the Levant and North Africa -- have the ideal climate.

The Mediterranean does not, however, have a lock on the ideal climatic conditions. As a result, olive groves also thrive in California and some parts of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Olives are also grown commercially in several South American countries, in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. More than 30 countries throughout the world now produce olive oil.

The Olive Kingpins

But the biggest olive producers are still Mediterranean. Of the 800 million olive trees on earth today, more than 90 percent grow in the Mediterranean basin. The single biggest producer -- of both olives and olive oil -- is Spain. Until 1980, that honor belonged to Italy, which now ranks second while Greece ranks third. The other olive kingpins are all in the Mediterranean basin as well: Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey.

The Big Exporters

For the most part, the world’s big olive producers are also the major exporters. Among net exporters of olive oil, for example, only one country is outside the Mediterranean region: Argentina.

Ironically, Italy, the world’s second largest exporter of olive oil, is not a net exporter. Domestic demand for that staple of Italian cuisine is so high that Italy buys more olive oil abroad than it ships to other countries. That translates into a lot of marinara sauce cooking up in Italian kitchens.

Changing Import Patterns

Domestic demand for olive products is high in other olive producing states as well. Collectively, countries in the Mediterranean basin consume nearly 90 percent of the olive oil produced worldwide.

But the passion for Mediterranean cuisine is clearly expanding. The United States is the second largest market, importing more than 200 tons of olive oil a year. The European Union -- including cold as well as sunny climes -- is another big market.

But demand is growing at an even faster rate in countries far off the beaten Mediterranean track. Brazil, China and Russia are discovering the joys of Mediterranean olive oil. China currently ranks 10th among the importers of Spanish olive oil. Chinese imports tripled between 2007 and 2011. Perhaps Szechuan dishes will soon be stir-fried in olive oil instead of peanut oil?

Since antiquity, man has lauded the olive as a symbol of wisdom or peace. More realistically, the olive tree is a sterling example of the ultimate survivor. Hardy and versatile, Olea europea is one of the oldest tree species on the planet.

Long-Lived

Fossilized remains suggest that a prototype of today’s olive tree was growing 50,000 years ago. The arborist who plants an olive sapling today will be dead long before the tree, if all goes well in the grove. Many specimens in today’s working olive groves are hundreds of years old. According to some claims, a few olive trees have been alive for a thousand years or more.

As the olive tree ages, its smooth gray bark gets progressively gnarled. Is it any wonder that people, in the effort to stay young, have long popped olives, consumed olive oil plain and applied olive oil to skin and scalp? What works for the tree may work for the human -- as recent medical studies indicate.

Sun-Kissed

Subtropical regions are home to 800 million olive trees today. For these evergreens, deep cold is the worst enemy. A young tree will die at temperatures below 15 degrees F. Prolonged exposure to hard freezes will kill even an old tree. Some tree varieties will tolerate a slightly cooler climate, but hotter climates are the norm.

Nevertheless, the olive tree needs a cold season to go into a semi-dormant state. In that state, the tree starts thinking about putting its energy into producing fragrant flowers and setting fruit.

The olive tree is drought tolerant and can thrive in a wide variety of soil conditions, including a broad pH range.

Manhandled

In the Provence region of southern France, the olive tree supposedly shared this bit of wisdom with its human caretaker: “Make me poor and I’ll make you rich.” Olive farmers take that old saying to heart and prune their trees within an inch of their lives. Well-pruned trees put more of their energy into producing more and bigger fruit.

Harvesting techniques are similarly hands-on. They include shaking the tree, hand-combing the olives off the branches, rapping the branches with a long stick and a mechanically flailing the branches.

As tedious as such techniques are, the trickiest part of the harvest is the timing. For green olives the harvest may begin in early fall. For the darkest olives or the mellowest (and most short-lived) olive oil, the farmer may wait until early winter. In any event, he must factor in rain, wind and temperature variables -- and perhaps offer up a prayer to Athena, the goddess who wore an olive twig in her helmet.

Curing Methods

In the water curing method, the olives are cracked to release their natural bitterness, and then soaked in water for a few weeks. The final soak is in a vinegar/salt (brine) solution, for flavor. This method does not remove as much of the bitter flavor as other methods, so olives cured this way will have a more bitter taste.

Olives can also be cured directly in brine as they naturally ferment in the salty solution. Olives cured this way develop a unique flavor as the salt breaks them down. However, this process is much longer than water curing, taking anywhere from three to six months.

The dry curing method for olives only uses salt. This process is fairly short with the olives ready to eat in just five or six weeks. This process is best for smaller olives, as it dehydrates them and leaves them soft and wrinkled. As you may have guessed, olives cured this way will be salty and quite bitter. Like the water curing method, salt curing removes less of the bitter flavor.

The fastest method, but also the riskiest, is lye curing. Lye curing takes only a couple weeks, but lye is a very dangerous chemical to handle. The lye quickly breaks down the bitterness of the olive, and is then rinsed away to yield a smooth and mellow olive. Putting the olives through a period of fermentation after the lye cure can result in a more flavorful olive. This variation of lye curing takes about two months.

After they’re cured by one method or another, the olives are dried, frozen, or put into cans and jars. From there, they make their way into restaurants, specialty stores, grocery stores, and eventually to your plate!

Olive Curing

Nothing holds more promise than smooth olives on the branch, framed by delicate gray-green foliage. But that plump and pretty fruit will make your eyes wince and mouth pucker if it's sampled raw. The raw olive contains bitter oleuropein.

To become tasty, the olive needs to shed much of that bitter tannin through a process known as curing. Over the millennia, people have come up with various curing techniques, designed to bring out different flavors and textures.

Lye Curing

A lye bath is the quickest way of breaking down the chemical bond between oleuropein and the olive’s natural sugars. With more mature olives, the leaching process can take just a single day. The rinsing phase takes longer, at least several days. With repeated soaks and draining, the olives are cleansed of all trace of the caustic lye solution. The rinses also remove the leached out tannins.

A lye-cured olive is likely to taste mellow. But the ultimate outcome depends on the type of olive, the degree of ripeness at harvest and the post-curing method, which prepares the olive for storage. The final processing may employ brine, herbs and/or olive oil.

Brine Curing

Salt-water baths are at the other end of the time spectrum. At minimum, brine curing takes a month –and only if the olives are cracked ahead of time, so the salt water has immediate access to the inner flesh. For whole green olives, the process can take well over six months.

Every processor’s recipe is different. Some use a weak solution of one part salt to 16 parts water, while others double the concentration. The olives often take their saline baths in airtight conditions. Some family recipes, however, recommend using an open tub of salt water. Another variable is how often the water gets changed.

The brine solution promotes fermentation, changing the olive’s inherent sugars into lactic and acetic acid. Brine curing downplays bitterness while bringing out a sour tang.

Dry Salt-Curing

Salt can also work without water. This method, which is faster than the briny baths, takes advantage of simple osmosis. It works to best effect on oil-rich, dark olives. Generously coated in salt, the olives go into a container that permits drainage of the bitter inner juices.
The container is typically topped off with more salt.

Over several weeks, the olives get rotated to ensure adequate salt distribution. The cured olives are then removed and air dried overnight. Olives cured in this way will be wrinkled and salty, with a touch of bitterness.

Water Curing

One passive way of reducing oleuropein starts with nothing more exotic than water and cracked olives. For 3-4 weeks, they soak in a succession of baths -- with regular changes of water to remove not only the bitter juices, but also the mold that inevitably forms.

Water-cured olives have more than a touch of bitterness. More susceptible to spoilage, they typically go through a “finishing bath” in such antibacterial solutions as vinegar or brine.

For thousands of years, people have invented ways to utilize the versatile olive and the even more versatile by-product, olive oil -- and not just for food.

Snacks and Hors d’Oeuvres

A plump olive is the ultimate finger food. Containing monounsaturated fat and flavonoids, the olive is one of the few snacks that can be enjoyed guilt-free. A bowl of green or black olives, with a plate of crusty bread and flagon of olive oil for drizzling, can be a simple, delicious way to kick off a dinner party.

With a tad more effort, the cook can serve another scrumptious olive-based appetizer: tapenade. That paste of black olives and anchovies makes a zesty topping for baguette slices or a tasty dip for raw veggies. While the dinner guest savors the olive-based appetizers, he can swirl the fat green olives in his chilled martini -- or sip a dirty martini, containing a piquant drizzle of fine olive juice.

Entrees in the Mediterranean and Beyond

What would Greek Salad be without Kalamata olives? What would Salad Nicoise be without the small black olives of Provence? For the Italian lady of the evening who generously decided to satisfy her clients’ palates as well as their libidos, olives were the inspiration for Pasta Puttanesca. And without green olives, Tunisia’s Marketzeit would just be another boring way of braising beef.

Fortunately for foodies, culinary innovators continue to recognize the olive’s potential -- well beyond the Mediterranean. Olives have found their way into numerous Tex-Mex entrees. Long used as a topping for good old American pizza, black olives have more recently added visual, as well as gustatory dash to white pizza recipes. Many a nouvelle cuisine chef employs Spanish Manzanillas or Greek Kalamatas to enhance the eclectic ambitions of his dish.

Multitasking with Olive Oil

Whole cookbooks could be written about the culinary applications of olive oil -- as a cooking oil, a marinade, a paste or a dressing.

Applied topically, olive oil can ease the discomfort of sunburn, speed the healing of minor burns and reduce the scarring of closed wounds.

Olive oil continues to play a role in many religious ceremonies -- most commonly as the chrism applied to a newborn’s head in baptism.

Many beauty treatments rely on olive oil. Olive oil soaps cleanse the skin, and olive oil straight out of the bottle moisturizes skin, while reducing wrinkles and age spots. A little olive oil after a shampoo detangles wet hair and a scalp massage with warm olive oil may prevent dandruff and combat hair loss.

Some Mediterranean cultures have long considered olive oil an aphrodisiac. And just in case the oil proves effective at an inopportune time, a fat olive can serve as an emergency contraceptive, according to one old Mediterranean remedy.

How versatile can a fruit get?

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