24 Jan

An offering of olives

By Abigail Leichman,
Pic Peter Monses,

Fruit of distinction: Olives come from six continents, and their preparation and flavors are a reflection of that diversity.

The gleaming white bowl filled with five varieties of olives is a still life in greens, reds and purples. There is a scattering of acidic pepperoncini and chili peppers to keep the fruit crisp.

Fresh out of their bath of salt water or homemade wine-vinegar brine and just-picked herbs, each of these oval beauties has a distinct character and must be handled accordingly.

“I hate to go to the supermarket and see how they mix them all up together,” says chef Peter Panteleakis of Oceanos in Fair Lawn, whose artful assortments are served with dinner. “This kind needs one hour in salt water; that kind needs two hours in brine.”

While even a carelessly constructed melange of olives is an attractive addition to any table, it pays to learn how to differentiate among the vast varieties coming from trees on six continents.


“The first time customers come in, it can be confusing,” concedes Al Sozer, owner of Pickles, Olives Etc. in Lyndhurst and Manhattan with his wife, Yonca. “We are patient and give them tastes because we want them to be sure they know what they’re really buying.”

Sozer stocks 22 kinds of olives — whole, pitted, stuffed, cracked and scratched — from Greece, Turkey, Spain, Italy and France.

Greek varieties alone require a mini tutoring session, so we turned to Oceanos restaurant’s Panteleakis family, importers of olives harvested from 11,000 trees in their hometown of Krokees, on the Peloponnesian peninsula.

Nikos Panteleakis learned everything he knows from his father, Peter, on yearly trips to Krokees and in the Oceanos kitchen. As he describes each olive, the young restaurateur plucks it from the dish and pops it into his mouth, depositing a clean pit in a separate bowl with his fingers.

The calcidica must soak in citrus juices. Olive oil spoils its texture.

The Kalamata needs four days in salt water to draw out its bitterness. It’s distinguished by an eggplant hue and almond-shaped pit. (“Kalamata-style” olives actually are green olives dyed purple.)

The nafplion has a surprisingly sweet taste.

The green hondroelia is the product of grafting.

These four varieties are cracked with razor slits in their flesh to allow the appropriate marinade to penetrate. The fifth variety in the bowl, a chubby Greek version of the South American alfonso olive, remains uncut.

“It’s meaty and dense,” explains the olive aficionado. “Cracking would ruin it because the brine would deteriorate the meat.”

Sozer sells a yellowish Edremit Turkish olive that’s scratched rather than cracked. “It’s the bigger, green olives that get cracked in order to soak up the marinade,” he says. “Edremit are smaller and softer, so scratching is enough.”

When the makers of Chopin vodka served hundreds of martinis to guests at a recent Armani fashion launch, it was Sozer’s lemon-stuffed olives that graced the glasses.

‘Country’ look
Cocktail olives, of course, get pitted beforehand, as do olives added to salads and entrees. But table olives — never.

“It’s unnatural to eat an olive without a pit in it,” Nikos Panteleakis says.

“People like something to do with their food by hand,” adds Tim Vlahopoulos, managing partner of the new Greek restaurant Axia Taverna in Tenafly. “It’s part of the eating experience, and it provides the perfect ‘country’ look.”

Sozer, who is Turkish, wouldn’t think of setting his table without a boat of rich, salty, oil-cured Turkish olives. “Without black olives, the table is not complete,” he says.

Though olives require no eating utensil other than fingers, you may want to offer your assortment with pretty appetizer picks or slotted metal or olivewood serving spoons, suggests Jennifer Fuchs, a spokeswoman for Lindsay Olives in California.

Fingers are perfectly acceptable, however, for removing pits from your mouth.

“Put a little dish near each place setting where people can dispose of the pit,” Fuchs says. “Otherwise, they can spit it into a small cocktail napkin.”

Some diners prefer to use a fork to transfer the pit from mouth to plate. Still others extract the pit beforehand by squashing or slicing the fruit with a knife.

‘Anything goes’
There is no right or wrong way — short of hurling the pit at your dinner mate or dropping it on the floor. “Anything goes with olives,” Fuchs says.

That applies not only to etiquette, but also to combining the ancient, healthful fruit with appetizer and main-dish ingredients.

“My chef, Alex Gorant, uses olives in many things, from meatballs to crusted salmon,” says Vlahopoulos. “Some are spicier, like the Spanish volos olive. Some need a little oregano or thyme to bring out their flavor.”

Sozer says his oregano- and rosemary-marinated and garlic- or cheese-stuffed varieties are particularly popular for salads and snacks. But he suggests that olive novices buy a mixed assortment and decide for themselves. Prices range from $6.50 to $9.50 per pound.

A brief olive primer
There are dozens of olive types from more than a dozen countries. They share certain characteristics: All are bitter right off the tree and must be cured before eating. High in monounsaturated fat that raises “good” cholesterol levels, the fruit and its oil are thought to be responsible for the low rate of heart disease in Mediterranean countries. Olives also have modest amounts of vitamin A, calcium and iron.

Here are the ones you’re most likely to find at the market.

* Alfonso: Dark purple, tart and tender, from Chile or Peru.
* Gaeta: Brownish-black with a nutty flavor, from Italy.
* Kalamata: The popular almond-shaped, purplish-black, rich, meaty variety often labeled as Greek.
* Manzanilla: The commonly pitted and stuffed green variety often labeled as Spanish.
* Mission: Black, mellow and smooth, from California.
* Moroccan: Large, reddish-green, brine-cured ones are soft and tart; salt-cured wrinkled black ones have a glistening, silky texture and a meaty, slightly smoky flavor.
* Nicoise: Small, brownish-black with a mellow and nutty flavor, from Provence. Often packed in oil with lemon and herbs; best known for use in salad nicoise.
* Picholine: Medium-size, green and very salty, primarily from France.
* Sicilian: Large, green, tart and meaty, sometimes flavored with red pepper or fennel.

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