To my mind (and palate), olives are not an acquired taste, to call out the common bias — except in one turn on that phrase. You acquire them; you taste them. Done.
While we’re all too ready to use olive oil to cook or flavor our food, we infrequently recollect that the fruit that made that oil is itself a food.
Eating them probably fulfilled that purpose, back thousands of years ago in that region from which the tree olea europaea originated, Anatolia (present-day Turkey). It migrated in short order to many neighboring countries, all of those surrounding the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean seas, from which nearly all the olive oil made in the world derives today.
Botanically, the olive is a drupe, as are cherries, almonds, and plums — that is, a fair amount of flesh and a stone-hard pit. The pit is said to be “lignified,” from the Latin for “wood” (lignum). It may be swallowed accidentally without harm, but is neither to be chewed nor eaten. Hence, when used in cooking, olives are pitted or the diner is notified otherwise.
The olive tree is an evergreen and, like some of its species such as the bristlecone pine, is extraordinarily long-lived. Many in its lands of origin are well over 1,000 years in age yet still produce annual harvests of fruit.
Cooking with olives
Because the olive, when young as a newly formed fruit, is also extraordinarily bitter, it requires tempering before it can be eaten out of hand or used in cooking. Hence, for those same thousands of years, methods of curing and fermenting olives (drying, salting, washing, oiling) have conspired to rid the fruit of its bitterness. (The most aggressive of these methods, the use of lye or other caustics, dispatches of the bitterness most quickly but doesn’t develop ancillary flavors, as do the other methods.)
Most olives take their names from their place of origin, such as the gorgeously green, mammoth, sweet and fruity Castelvetrano of Sicily or the small, dark brown Nicoise (from Nice, France). Technically the Nicoise is the cultivar Cailletier, but no one calls it that at the grocery store. The Italians call the Cailletier the Taggiasca and it makes nearly all the great oils of Liguria along Italy’s northwestern coast and one of the country’s more sought-after oil-producing regions.
Other olives get their names from their cultivar, such as the Picholine, from France, or the Cerignola, from Italy, fatigue green and fat and distinctively savory as olives go.
Finally, some olives are called after their method of curing or their style of preparation, such as the semi-dried and oil-cured blacks of Greece (“Greek-style”), or the “Sicilian-style” olives that are merely marinated in any number of various flavorings, few of which indeed originate in Sicily.
In the United States, the Mission olive reigns, in both green (less ripe) and black (very ripe) versions, at least as a pizza topping or stuffed with small poles of pimento. The Mission olive comes from plantings by Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries from Spain to “New Spain”—California—in the late 1700s. Thought to be (it would make sense to think this) from Spain, it is not, though strangely plant scientists cannot nail down its exact parentage. California now produces some stellar extra virgin olive oils, but few begin from the Mission.
The United States has showered other blessings on eating and cooking with olives. In 1898, the first glass jars housed cured olives in Oroville, California. And in 1933, Herbert Kagley, a California mechanic, built the first olive pitter, expressly for the purpose of having a well-bored olive prepared for his (and a grateful nation’s) Martinis, that great American cocktail.
Olives that are eaten never are rid of the entirety of their bitterness (except the very ripe and midnight-black ones such as those Greek-style or the “Queen” size of the black Mission, but then these can be merely mealy). Keep that in mind when cooking with olives or in service. Balance the slight bitterness with some acidity (the rind or juice of lemon, say, or aged balsamic) or sweetness (dried fruit, perhaps).
It helps, of course, to pit them when cooking with olives, but pits-in is best, even if slightly inconvenient, for eating out of hand. Europeans are instructive here, or so they have told me over the years. The insides of pitted olives can readily absorb elements such as salt or vinegar — both almost always present in dressings or marinades for whole olives — and then turn the olive flesh mealy or mushy. Therefore, for snacking or “tidbit” olives, keep them whole while preparing them and let the snackers pit them as they go along.
The recipe here could rightly be called “Sicilian style,” though it comes from my Denver-based (or previously Chicago-based) kitchen. I’ve been preparing olives in this way for years. It’s “St. John-style” olives, but then it could be anyone’s; that’s the idea. Also, the key to both its flavor and favor is to use not any single sort of olive. The key to the underlying deliciousness is to use five, six or seven different sorts of olives—black, green and purple and shades of each.
Simple marinated whole olives
Makes 2 cups. Use a mix of green, black, brown, and purple olives from various regions, pits-in preferred; the differences are what makes these interesting and tastier than a single varietal. If you have a small garlic or shallot mandolin, use it to slice the garlic cloves into paper-thin slivers. If you have a bartender’s lemon rind stripper, use it to make 2-inch strands of the lemon rind.
2 cups whole olives
Red or green hot or mild peppers, whole, to taste
1/4 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil
Splash unflavored rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
3 small bay leaves, left whole
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence, lightly crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes or 3 small dried red Thai or other hot peppers, lightly crushed
Rind of 1 lemon stripped, with little or no pith, and sliced into very thin strands
Combine all ingredients but the olives and whole peppers in a small saucepan and heat, stirring, until warmed through. In a large bowl, add to the olives and peppers and mix together well.
Place in a nonreactive bowl or jar, cover, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight. (The marinated olives will store, in the refrigerator, for a month or more.) To serve, bring to room temperature, stirring back in the flavorings.
Reach Bill St. John at email@example.com