The Lost Art of Curing Olives

by Sarah on December 30, 2009

Whenever I eat my home cured olives I often remember the scruffy man who taught me the secrets of making them.  He was the aging electrician’s helper who was more than a bit lackadaisical about his job, often wafting away while his boss scurried about looking for him. I was partly to blame because as soon as he lumbered into the yard his eyes widened at the site of the boughs laden with the smoothest olives “what beautiful olives!” he explained.  I sensed that this man knew more about olives than fixing electric blinds and without much prodding he soon was resting happily in the warm autumn sun describing the lost art of curing olives while his boss was threatening him under his breath. I should have told his boss that I would have paid double for the recipe than for getting the blinds fixed.

Olives, Rhodes Greece

It is said that the first olive tree of Greece grew from a dispute between the God Athena and Poseidon who both wanted the honor of naming the new city of Attica.  Zeus was called in to mediate and he decided that whoever offered the better gift would be given the right to name the city.  Poseidon’s gift, as can be expected from the god of the sea was a gushing steam of water but it was Athena who created the olive tree where her spear struck a rock near the Acropolis and from that time on the city became known as Athens.

Olive Trees in Rhodes Greece, near another Acropolis Ancient Olive Tree at Bet Jemal near Bet Shemesh

From ancient times the olive tree has been steeped in literature and folklore as it was an inseparable part of their lives; sustenance, light, heat, medicine and cosmetics were all derived from this single tree and instrumental for their survival. Not only was it Zeus’s favorite tree but it is mentioned in both the old and new testaments as well as the Koran, being used in numerous religious rituals from antiquity.  The olive is intertwined with the history of many areas of the Mediterranean and the Middle East and has become allegorical for glory, fertility, health and most important, the illusive peace.

Olive flowers in the spring

In Israel there are ancient remains of olive presses from 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, such as the subterranean olive oil plants in Bet Guvrin National Park, which were used to process olives throughout the winter.

Olive press in Bet Guvrin, picture by Yael Ruder Olive Crusher in Bet Guvrin National Park

The olive is common throughout the Mediterranean and it is nearly impossible to isolate the exact location of its origin. It is generally believed that domestication began in the area of Asia Minor, from the southern Caucasus, to the Mediterranean coasts of Syria and Palestine and spread from there to Greece and Africa. It is “the knowledge of their domestication” says Professor Shimon Lavee, of the Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University at Rehovot that was transferred during ancient times to other parts of the worlds “and not the olive trees themselves”. With the advent of molecular biology technique it is now possible to study the olive at the genetic level and according to the research group at the Center of Bio-Archeology and Ecology, at the University of Montpellier, domestication was not a single event but occurred several times during history as Professor Lavee described. There was also a fair share of physical transfer of genetic material.   

Selling Olives at Ramle Shuk

There are hundreds of olive varieties around the world with Spain, Italy and Greece being the main producers. In Israel there are five main table varieties which are widely available,

Souri: One of the most popular olives in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Indigenous to the area, this olive grows well in the arid, sunny climate of Israel.  It produces a pungent olive oil with a dominant flavor. The olives are usually cracked or split, with a strong and bitter flavor, preferred among the Arabs and Israelis. It has a distinctive elongated shape with large seed. Souri is named after the town of Sur (Tyre) in Lebanon and does not mean it is from Syria.

Nabali-Baladi (with a sub-variety called Muhann): Along with souri it is one of the indigenous breeds found in the area, being the most popular cultivar in Jordan. It produces a more neutral olive oil similar to Mazanillo. The introduction of a sub variety, called improved Nabali (Muhasan in Arabic) has actually been less successfully integrated, being more susceptible to diseases according to Said A. Assaf.

Mazanillo: A very common olive in Israel, best as table olives when pickled Spanish style, lye cured and then added to brine. It produces a much flatter and earthier olive oil than souri and is generally not used for that.

Nubo: A large olive variety known in Italy as Uovo Di Piccione (meaning dove’s eggs). Another large variety is Santa Catarina although at Ramle shuk they called it Santa Aviv (I am not sure where that name came from). It is often used to cross pollinated souri and other olives but is also used as a table olive.

Barnea: This variety was developed by Professor Shimon Lavee at the Volcani Institute of Bet Dagan and has become a one of the most popular olives for oil in the world, grown in Israel as well as in Australia and New Zealand, producing a delicate flavored oil. It can also be cured as black table olives.

Other cultivars are also being grown but are not as widely available, including Arbequina, Picual, Picholine, Leccino, and Koroneiki.

At Ramle Shuk, the front left are Souri Olives

How is it that in the world of so many olives, the symbol for peace, there are so many conflicts. For some people this is not just an allegory but a way of life. Oded Salmon, an Israeli  and Fares Jabi, a Palestinian are both experts on olives who have started a collaboration based on fair trade and personal ties to produce olives of peace olive oil. According to Olives for Peace website:

“The new product line was founded on the belief that good business could help promote peace; while peace could bolster with the development of the region’s economy.”

 

Home Cured Olives

The first time I contemplated curing olives I was told that “it is the easiest thing in the world, All you have to do is to put in enough salt so an egg float” he must have given me other directions as well, but they have faded away as I was horribly unsuccessful using his directions, instead of curing olives, the brine turned cloudy and polluted. I had limited success until I met the electrictions helper.

Uncured olives such as Manazillo at ripe green stage

Salt

Vinegar

Flavorings: lemon slices, garlic slices, dried pepper, bay leaves, allspice, black seeds, grape leaves

Olive oil for covering the top

1. Pick or buy olives, the best time to pick green olives is when some of the olives are beginning to change color

2. Wash the olives and discard any that are soft and bruised.

3. Make 2-3 slits down each olive all the way to the seed using a sharp knife.

4. Cover the olives with water and use a plastic net to keep the olives submerged.

5. Every 24 hours discard the water and add new water, covering the olives.

6. After about 6 or 7 days taste the olives to see if they are still too bitter. If yes, continue covering with water and discarding, taste again after another few days. This stage reduces the level of oleuropein, a bitter water soluble molecule which makes the olive unpalatable if not treated.

7. Make a solution of 10% salt (10 grams salt for every 100 ml of water) and 1/8 vinegar solution (for every 8 cups of brine solution, 1 cup of vinegar)

8. Add olives to a clean glass jar interspaced with sliced lemon, dried red pepper, sliced garlic, mustard seeds, black pepper seeds, allspice cloves, grape leaves and any other flavorings. Cover with the brine and then a thick layer of olive oil so the olives do not poke through. Close jar and leave in a cool, dry place for at least two months. White mold can develop on the top of  olives if they are not submerged properly. This is harmless but should be skimmed off.

9. It is possible to ferment the olives in plain brine without the added spices.   In this case the olives can be eaten plain or mixed with a marinade before serving, preferably the night before. The marinade can be made by infusing olive oil with spices, herbs and aromatics such as chili flakes, lemon slices, crushed coriander seeds, parsley and garlic. This method is often used when using a lower percentage of salt since items such as lemons have a tendency to spoil at these levels. 

References:

Israeli Olive Board

International Olive Councill

Professor Shimon Lavee

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