It’s been a staple of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine for thousands of years because, as Mark Hix finds, there’s no end to what you can do with an olive
No one is sure where the olive tree originated, but it has been grown all over the Middle East and Mediterranean since time immemorial. More recently, it has been successfully exported to countries with similar climates in the southern hemisphere, such as Australia and Argentina. The tree is a symbol of life, supports economies and its fruit has been traded for more than 3,000 years. In many Mediterranean countries olives and bread have a heavy religious significance.
We may be mad for Mediterranean food and holidays but most of us still have a lot to learn about olives. The variety on offer is expanding, as delis and supermarkets add to their ranges. They are moving away from the heavily brined varieties – like the one that nearly put me off for life, preserved in jars and classified as pickles – to fresher-looking, shiny-skinned berries glistening in oil in the chilled cabinets. Some produce markets and food fairs have olive stalls with tubs filled with olives of all sizes, shapes and colours and in different marinades.Deciding which olive to buy, however, is a bit like deciding which wine will best go with dinner; the choice can seem overwhelming. But, unlike wines, if you have an olive bar handy you can buy a mixture to satisfy everyone’s taste and work out which ones you prefer. And if you’re a single variety person you may wish to choose anything from the small, greeny-brown, Spanish arbequina to a plump, deep purple, Greek kalamata or maybe even a delicate little almond-shaped picholine from France.
Goat’s and ewe’s cheese salad with tapenade dressing
Tapenade is made with pounded olives, anchovies and garlic. You can buy it in jars but it’s not hard to make your own, and it will have a fresher flavour that you can adjust according to taste.
Put 200g stoned black olives into a food processor with one crushed garlic clove and three or four anchovy fillets, then blend. In a sealed jar it keeps in the fridge for weeks, so it’s on hand for spreading on to toasted baguette slices with slivers of goat’s cheese to have with drinks. Or you can provide tapenade instead of butter to eat with bread while dinner cooks.
In this recipe the tapenade goes into a dressing which mellows it, so even those who aren’t sure about full-on olive flavour can try it. This vegetarian dish is great as a cheese course or as a starter. I’ve used two types of cheese here: a soft, fresh goat’s and a mature ewe’s milk cheese which gives the salad a nice contrast of flavours and textures. If you can’t find ewe’s milk cheese, use a soft and a mature goat’s cheese – some cheesemakers produce both.
120g soft goat’s cheese
80-100g mature/hard ewe’s or goat’s cheese
A piece of stale or frozen baguette
Olive oil for brushing
for the dressing
1/2 tbsp white wine vinegar
3tbsp olive oil
Cut the stale or frozen baguette into 8 wafer-thin slices then cut each slice in half. Brush with olive oil and toast on both sides under the grill. Spread each piece with a light smear of tapenade and put to one side.
To make the dressing, whisk all the ingredients together. Arrange the leaves on plates and spoon the dressing over. Break the soft goat’s cheese into pieces and scatter in among the leaves with the tapenade toast slices, then shave the mature cheese on top with a sharp knife or potato peeler.
Deep-fried stuffed olives
These are a common snack or starter in Italy. They can be made with a number of different fillings, and with the ‘stuffing’ on the outside, they rather remind me of a Scotch egg. You could make them totally vegetarian by popping the olive into a chunk of mozzarella before crumbing it. Or you could make a mushroom mixture by finely chopping some wild mushrooms and cooking them with onions, garlic and herbs then adding breadcrumbs.
These are great with drinks and you can make them as small or large as you wish.
12 good quality, medium-sized, stoned green olives
150-200g minced pork containing 20-30 per cent fat
1tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp chopped chives
2tsp chopped fresh oregano
30g smoked pancetta, streaky bacon, or prosciutto trimmings, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Flour for dusting
1 egg, beaten
40g fresh white breadcrumbs mixed with 1tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
Mix the pork, herbs and pancetta together and season. Divide the mixture into 12 then wrap it around the olives. Roll the balls first into the flour, shaking off any excess, then into the egg, and finally into the breadcrumb mixture.
Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 150-160C in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan or electric fryer. Deep fry the olives for 5-6 minutes, or until they are golden and the meat is cooked through. If they are colouring too soon, turn the temperature down or finish them in a low oven.
Tagine of rabbit with olives and preserved lemon
I remember clearly the first time I ate an olive: I was 16 and I spat it straight out. It was one of those heavily brined ones stuffed with pimento. They’re not that good even when you’ve learnt to like olives – which I certainly hadn’t – even when you’re peering at them through a pool of martini. Anyway, I now love olives, and martinis – although still not together. And along the way I’ve also discovered much that is fascinating about the many varieties of the fruit of this ancient, silvery-leafed, symbolic tree.
With all that chicken that tastes about as interesting as the wretched life it’s lived, it makes good environmental sense for us to eat more rabbit, as we used to years ago. Eating bunnies shouldn’t be frowned upon – it makes sense because in the country they are a pest and their numbers need keeping down. What’s more they are tasty little things and cheaper than a chicken, especially if you know someone f who shoots or traps them. If you think this sounds harsh, it’s simply real life.
Anyway, back to olives. We tend to associate olives with Italian, Greek and Spanish cuisine, but they also feature in north African cookery, where their slight bitterness is used to good effect in dishes like tagines. This is a perfect dinner-party dish just placed in the middle of the table with some steamed cous cous. You don’t even need to mention it’s rabbit.If you’re buying whole rabbits keep the fillets from the saddle for a salad, as it’s a shame to slow cook such tender meat.12 rabbit legs, back and front
4tbsp olive oil
3 medium red onions, peeled and sliced
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
30g root ginger, peeled and finely grated
1/2 tsp ground mace
2tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
A good pinch of saffron strands
2tsp tomato purée
1.5 litres chicken stock
30 green olives like picholine, whole or stoned
2 pickled lemons, quarteredPre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Season and lightly flour the rabbit pieces. Heat half the olive oil in a heavy frying pan and fry the rabbit pieces for a couple of minutes on each side until they are nicely brown. Put to one side.
Meanwhile, in a saucepan with a lid, gently cook the onions in the rest of the olive oil with all the spices for about 10 minutes, stirring every so often until they are soft and beginning to colour. You may need to add a little water if they are sticking to the bottom. Add the tomato purée and chicken stock, bring to the boil and season. Simmer for 20 minutes, then add the pieces of rabbit and olives. Transfer into a tagine or a covered cooking dish and finish in the oven for 1 hour, or until tender. You may need to add more stock during cooking, although a tagine shouldn’t have too much liquid.
Taste the sauce and, if necessary, simmer in a clean pan to thicken slightly.
Return the rabbit pieces and lemons, reheat for a few minutes and serve with steamed cous cous. Have a pot of harissa (you can buy it from Sainsbury’s special selection shelves) on hand to add some extra spice and heat.
Olive-oil poached cod Niçoise
Poaching fish in oil is a great way of cooking as you get lots of flavour into the fish and it stays moist. At Leuka, the annual charity dinner where each table of diners is cooked for by a different chef for whom they’ve bid, Bruce Poole of Chez Bruce in Wandsworth served something like this to his lucky guests that evening, paired with baby artichokes.
Traditionally a Niçoise salad needn’t have included tuna. It was about using local ingredients, in season, and would have consisted of a number of vegetables such as artichokes and beans with a good dressing, herbs and anchovies.
Most fishmongers should be selling sustainable cod these days; failing that, you could use pollock.
for the salad
1 fennel bulb
100g, podded weight of broad beans, cooked
2 firm tomatoes, skinned, seeded and finely chopped
20 black kalamata olives
1tbsp chopped chervil, parsley and chives, mixed
1tbsp good-quality white wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
for the fish
A thick fillet of cod, (about 3-4cm) or pollock, weighing about 400g
Olive oil to cover
4 cloves of garlic, peeled, or half a head of new season’s garlic
1/2 tbsp sea salt
A few sprigs of thyme
1tsp fennel seeds
Sprinkle the salt on the fish and leave it to sit for 30 minutes. Put enough olive oil in a saucepan to cover the cod. (A small, tight-fitting pan should be used or you will end up using too much olive oil). Into the pan, put the garlic, thyme, fennel seeds and peppercorns. Heat the pan gently and leave to infuse on a very low heat for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the cod and leave somewhere warm with a lid on for 1 hour. A pan of gently simmering water with an inverted lid would be good, or the warming oven of an Aga. The idea is that the cod just barely cooks in the oil and becomes beautifully translucent.
Halve the fennel bulb and cook in boiling salted water for 30 minutes, or until tender. Remove from the liquid and leave to cool.
Cut each half of the fennel in half, remove the core and separate the natural layers and mix with the broad beans, tomatoes and herbs.
Put the olives on a chopping board and crush them a little with the bottom of a saucepan to reveal the stone. Then carefully remove all the stones and add the crushed flesh to the fennel mixture. Add the vinegar and about 4-5 tbsp of the oil from the cod, mix well and season.
Finally, arrange the mixture on serving plates, then remove the cod from the oil with a slotted spoon and break into pieces over the salad.
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