17 Jul

Salty Bites

By Gillian Hirst,

WILD olives have been collected and eaten by humans since Neolithic times.

Cultivation is not thought to have begun until 3000BC, in or around Palestine or Syria.

You can trace the spread of the olive through the remains of ancient olive mills, storage jars and olive stones found throughout Greece, Italy, the south of France and Spain.

Huge storage jars found on the other side of the globe from where they were made indicate early travel by sea helped the distribution of this popular fruit to the four corners of the Earth.

Today olives are found just about everywhere. The mission variety grown in California were cultivated before 1800, in the Spanish missions. Australia’s first olive trees came from France to South Australia in 1844.

Some olives are named after their place of origin, some after the variety, and some after the way they have been cured. Simply speaking, there are two types of olives: green and black. The green are unripe olives and are available from March to August. Green olives are very bitter and are most often cracked to allow the brine, salts and flavours to penetrate. Black olives are available from August to April and have a much higher oil content. As the olive ripens it tend to lose its bitterness.

In Europe, instructions on how to cure olives are passed down through the generations. This knowledge is often passed on without the science of what is happening being known but it still results in perfectly cured fruits with a personal style.

The basic procedure is to place the fruit in brine to break down the sugars into lactic acid then to add flavours such as lemon, chilli or garlic – the list is endless.

There are several ways to cure olives. Curing them in water involves many changes of water over many months; dry curing olives uses salt, with the olives placed in a brine for up to six months.

Oil-curing olives in olive oil, or sun-drying then rubbing with oil can also work well. You can also lye-cure olives, using a strong alkaline solution.

The practice of stuffing olives has been around since the 18th century. First done by hand, some of the original stuffings are still popular today. Capers, anchovies, capsicum and tuna are all still on the menu.

It took a drink to get someone to invent an olive pitter, though. Herbert Kagley, a Californian mechanic, must have been very fond of martinis. He invented a mechanical pitter for green olives to speed up production of the pimento-stuffed green olive just for the famed drink in 1933.

I prefer a twist of lemon myself.

TAPENADE

  • 1 cup kalamata olives, pitted
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1 medium-sized red capsicum, roasted and peeled
  • 1 tbs chopped parsley
  • 1 tbs small capers
  • Extra-virgin olive oil

Chop by hand (not in a food processor) the olives, garlic and capsicum. You can use the prepared roasted capsicum bought in jars. Mix all ingredients together and drizzle over enough extra-virgin olive oil to loosen the mixture. Great served with warm bread, on chicken or fish or over a warm lamb salad.

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