Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
The Olive Trees of Noah
In Lebanon, about 80 kilometers north and east of Beirut, is a tiny village, Bchaaleh. Here a grove of 16 trees stands proud, strong, and silent. These trees have witnessed centuries of violence, hardship, and political unrest. They have endured disease, famine, and the rack of hatchets.
For 6,000 years, these trees have withstood the ravages of time. They are as old as the Great Flood waters. These are the “Olive Trees of Noah.”
They stand there silent, proud. They stand there for man ... to remind us of our history. They stand there for us to take what we want, never asking for anything in return. They stand there to remind us that this, too, shall pass. They stand there to spread the message of peace and faith. They stand there united on this land, their roots intertwining. They stand there wise, knowing that silence is a virtue only old age fathoms.
— Karen Karam, “365 Days of Lebannon”
The olive tree, Olea europaea, is native to the Mediterranean; botanists believe that it originated from the wild oleaster. Rarely does the olive tree reach more than 50 feet in height; older specimens are recognized not by their size but by their gnarled, twisted contour; perhaps Tolkein had the olive tree in mind when he created the Ents of Lord of the Rings.
Characteristics of Olive Trees and Olives
- The olive tree is deciduous; it retains its leaves year-round.
- The fruit of the tree is borne on second-year growth and, despite the many technological advances of the past centuries, is still harvested by hand.
- Olives are delicate and easily bruised, especially those grown to become a “table” olive—that is, one that will be served whole for eating.
- Those that will be immediately pressed for oil can withstand a bit more handling.
- Olives vary greatly in size and texture depending on the cultivar; Mediterranean olives are particularly rich—such as the Picholine and Niçoise from France; the Calamata from Greece; and the Gaeta from Italy.
- Olives also vary in color, but this is dependent upon how long they are allowed to ripen on the tree. Olives begin yellow-green in color, then turn golden brown, then purplish; when fully mature, they are a glossy ebony.
- Olives and olive trees have been praised and painted, extolled in poetry and prose, and even mentioned 86 times in the Bible. The Prophet Muhammad advised his followers to apply olive oil to their bodies. Olive oil was used to anoint the early kings of the Jews. The Greeks used it to anoint winning athletes.
The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palm, the gold beads, 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 taste of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water.
— Lawrence Durrell, "Prospero's Cell’ (1945)
What Makes an Olive an Olive?
When freshly picked olives are bitter, only with curing do they become palatable. So what is "curing"? Olive curing is a type of fermentation—it's the conversion of the olive's natural sugars into lactic acid.
There are several ways in which olives can be cured. Their bitter nature can be removed by soaking in water, brine, lye, or oil, packing in salt, or by sun drying. Today in Italy, thousands of households still cure their own olives, each believing that they hold the secret recipe for developing the tastiest, most luxuriously rich olive.
Types of Olives
If your only experience with olives is the black orbs from a can or the green globe in your martini, you are in for a surprise. There are actually hundreds of cultivars. Did you know that green olives and black olives come from the same tree?
Green olives are unripe. They are typically picked at the start of harvest (September and October) and must be soaked in a lye bath before brining. Black olives are fully ripe (harvest time for them is November, December, and January) and can be brined without any other processing. Here are the most common varieties:
Perhaps I should have compiled this list in reverse alphabetical order, saving the best for last.
- The beldi olive is grown in Morocco—difficult to find but worth the effort.
- They are dry-cured and boldly flavorful.
- Serve in salads or on an appetizer tray where their flavor can be the start of the show rather than being muted by the influence of other ingredients.
- A black olive from Italy, gaetas get the full spa treatment (dry-cured with salt, then rubbed with oil).
- Gaetas are small, wrinkled, mild, and often packed with rosemary.
- A good snacking olive or (my personal favorite) perfect atop a freshly cooked mound of pasta with capers, pine nuts, and a few slivers of Pecorino-Romano cheese.
- Greek black olive; harvested when fully ripe.
- It is deep purple in color, almond-shaped, brined, and has a rich, fruity flavor.
- They are often packed in red wine vinegar and/or olive oil, which gives them their distinctive taste.
- This is a great olive to use in tapenade.
- The name and vibrant taste tell you that it comes from Italy.
- These grow in the northern-most region of Italy
- They are black and briny and are often cured with bay leaves and rosemary.
- Another olive from Italy, this one is very salty and is popular on cheese boards.
- A Spanish green olive, it can be either unpitted or pitted and stuffed.
- They are lightly lye-cured, then brined or packed in salt.
- French olive; harvested when fully ripe.
- They are black, small, and have a mellow flavor.
- The pit-to-flesh ratio is rather high.
- These are often packed with herbs and with the stems left intact. They're a must-have in salad niçoise.
- Green olive from France, these are salt-brine cured with a crisp texture and tart flavor.
- An Italian black olive, brined and then packed in vinegar.
- A California native, the Sevillano is salt-brined and preserved with lactic acid.
Recipes in This Article
- Olive tapenade
- Olive hummus (V)
- Focaccia with olives (V)
- Spaghetti with olives and capers (V)
- Marinated roasted chicken in wine-cream sauce
V = vegetarian
To eat tapenade is to experience Provence. This Heavenly mix of olives, capers, and crusty bread from the corner Boulangerie-—these are to me what speak of Paris and of the Rue Cler where, for three glorious days, we lived and dined France.
To the uninitiated tapenade is not pretty. It is an uninviting dark, smoke-colored paste. But take a spoonful and hold it up to your nose. Inhale the fragrance of briny French olives, the tang of capers, and the zesty tart aroma of lemon. Then spread it on a slice of bread that was baked just one hour ago. The exterior of the bread is crisp; it shatters with the slice of the knife. But the interior is moist yet almost cloud-like. One bite fills your senses with an explosion of flavors and textures—tart, bitter, salty, creamy, crisp, chewy, and crunchy. The ingredients are simple, but the sum of their parts is exquisite.
TheSpruce has a recipe for olive tapenade that is very close, I'm sure, to what we enjoyed in Paris.
In the introduction to her blog ThymeandToast, Christine tells us that her fondest memories are centered around a table with my huge Lebanese and Syrian family, eating, drinking, and celebrating togetherness and good food. I believe that food isn’t meant to just sustain and fuel us, but to enjoy with others, to celebrate with them, and to take pleasure in. Good food can feed your soul, and it’s my favorite way to learn about different cultures.
She and I are certainly kindred spirits; we share the same philosophy of food, culture, and shared histories. Her recipe for olive hummus reflects her Middle Eastern roots, and the use of healthy ingredients speaks to her quest to create healthy foods for those she loves.
Focaccia With Olives
Several months ago, I shared with you my recipe for Perfect Focaccia. Take it one step further. Before the final rise (when the bread dough puffs and lifts and is ready to be baked), place olives (left whole if small, chopped if large, but in both cases pitted, of course) in the indentations made by your fingers. Bake as directed.
Use any olive you wish; I like the Liguria olives.
Spaghetti With Olives and Capers
- 1 pound spaghetti (or other strand pasta)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup oil-cured black olives
- 1/2 cup green olives
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano flakes
- 3 tablespoons fresh minced parsley
- 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water according to package instructions until al dente (still slightly firm).
- While pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-low heat. Add tomatoes, garlic olives, capers, pepper flakes, and seasonings. Cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.
- Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
- Add pasta to saute pan. Toss to coat. Add 1/2 of each of the cheese. Toss again. Add some of the reserved pasta water if needed to create a creamy sauce.
- Serve pasta with the remaining cheese on top.
Marinated Roasted Chicken in Wine Mushroom Cream Sauce With Kalamata Olives
Sharee says that she learned to cook so that her family wouldn't have to eat ramen noodles every day. Well, I would have to say that she has progressed far beyond boiling a packet of ramen. Her one-pan marinated roasted chicken contains everything I love—chicken thighs, cream, mushrooms, AND olives. Yum.
© 2017 Linda Lum