17 Oct

Olives, Flavored by Time, Seasoned With Memories

Article by Julia Moskin,
Photo by Sylwia Kapuscinski,

Marco Smouha performed the ancient autumnal rite of olive-curing last week here at his son’s home, far from the nearest olive groves, but close to the traditions of his ancestors.

Mr. Smouha used 40 pounds of walnut-size fresh green olives from California, where the season is nearing its peak this week, packing them into jars with whole garlic cloves and hot peppers, sliced celery and lemons. He covered it all with brine, vinegar and lemon juice, closed the jars and stashed them away to cure, a recipe that he learned in his native Cairo before he emigrated to Brooklyn in 1967. After about six months, the olives will be distributed among his five adult children and their families.
“My wife tells me not to make it — it’s too much work,” said Mr. Smouha, who is 73. “But this flavor you can’t buy. You have to make it.”

His olives are fiercely sour, firm and lemony, with gusts of salt and bitterness and an underlying richness. Celia Smouha, his daughter-in-law, says that the olives are legendary in their community of Middle Eastern Jews. “Sometimes women who want to have babies call and ask him to make the olives in their house,” she said. “Sometimes it even works.”

Although olives and olive oil are fundamental to many cultures and cuisines that have assimilated here — Italian, French, Greek, Turkish, North African, Arab — home-cured olives have never been a staple of American pantries. Only California and Florida have a significant number of olive trees (which do best in the same climate as citrus trees).

Many Americans have become olive aficionados, finicky about their picholines and arbequinas, Kalamatas and Cerignolas. But few have a sense of how olives get from the tree to the table; even fewer attempt the process at home, though it can be as simple as this: Add salt to olives. Wait.

At any stage of ripeness, olives can be preserved with salt. But olives also must be treated to reduce their level of oleuropein, an acidic compound that makes them horribly inedible in their natural state. (Anyone who bites into a green olive off the tree lives to regret it: the puckery bitterness can linger for hours.) Green olives are unripe and black olives are ripe: the more unripe an olive is, the more oleuropein it has.

To quickly leach the oleuropein out of olives, commercial producers use lye, which “ripens” the olive artificially, and neutralizes its bitterness. Lye produces the smooth, cardboardy taste and soft texture associated with California black olives in cans. Almost all processors use lye for at least part of the curing.

Many recipes for home-cured olives begin with the step of going to the hardware store to buy some lye, and include terrifying warnings about protective gloves and eye burns.

“When I first started, I did everything just how the U.C.-Davis pamphlet told me to,” said Anna Friedrich-Scott of Livermore, Calif., referring to the University of California’s agricultural extension program. Ms. Friedrich-Scott is a California native, a dog trainer and self-described food obsessive. “Then the second year, when I was pouring this stuff like drain cleaner into the water, I thought — why am I doing this? There must be some other way.”

For thousands of years, home cooks around the Mediterranean — food obsessives by necessity, not by choice — have used nothing more than sun and salt for curing. Given enough time, a simple brine can remove the bitterness from olives and give them a ripe, balanced, bracing flavor.

Many people crack or slit the olive’s flesh to speed up the process: this is what’s called olives cassées, or broken olives, in the south of France. Ms. Friedrich-Scott says she is in her seventh year of making olives cassées, curing a combination of green and black olives in a solution of salt water and wine vinegar. After the olives are cured, she drains off the brine and steeps them in olive oil and a sprinkling of fennel seed, lemon zest and black peppercorns.

“Home-cured olives are as basic to Middle Eastern meals as bread,” said May Bsisu, a cooking teacher and cookbook author (“The Arab Table”), who grew up in Jordan but lives in Cincinnati.

“We eat them three meals a day, until the harvest runs out,” she said. “The olive harvest is in the spring, when everyone in the village would pick from the trees and spread out the green olives on sheets to dry. The sun actually cures the olives, and the brine preserves them.”

As olives ripen, from green to brown to purple-black, their bitterness is reduced naturally, if slowly. “I’ve tasted olives that we picked ripe in November and left alone until the following June,” said Maurice Penna, who farms 100 acres of olive trees in Orland, Calif. “They taste smooth as silk, with just a trace of bitterness that I think is delicious.” Black olives can be brined like green olives; or they can be dried, salted and oil-cured. That process results in black, wrinkled, velvety olives, but is more challenging for home cooks.

Putting up a jar of olives in brine is easy, especially this year. So far, 2007 is producing a bumper crop, Mr. Penna said, with the best yields since 1966, the year he began farming. Mr. Penna, like many growers, is branching out from the classic California olive breed — the Mission — into fashionable European imports like the lucques. “Now there’s a beautiful olive,” Mr. Penna said, “with a really lovely meat-to-pit ratio.”

Fresh California olives, in season from about September to November, are available or can be ordered at many Italian, Middle Eastern and specialty produce markets. They can also be ordered from the Pennas at greatolives.com, from LaConda Ranch at (530) 824-5946, or via the Olive Growers Council of California, at (559) 734-1710.

Raw, green California Missions were on sale last week at Teitel Brothers on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, for $1.69 a pound or $23 for a 20-pound case. “It’s mostly old-timers who buy them, with a few young-timers,” said Gilbert Teitel, whose Austrian Jewish family has been in the Italian-food business since 1915.

Most of his customers for raw olives have parents or grandparents who brought their curing methods from Sicily, Campania or elsewhere in southern Italy. Last Friday, all Mr. Teitel had to do to find four recipes was put the phone down and shout.

Mrs. Bsisu also credits her ancestors with cultivating the appreciation of olives. Now, her home-curing is a necessity. “My uncle used to send me olives and olive oil from our farm in the country in Jordan,” she said. “Of course, that was before Sept. 11. Now, to get that taste, I will have to cure my own.”

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