16 Mar

The humble olive

JAMES HIPKISS writes on the history, varieties and best ways to enjoy olives.

Most Malaysians are familiar with olive oil. It is now commonly available in ever increasing varieties in nearly all supermarkets and specialist shops.

However, the olive itself is not so commonly used here, and perhaps not so often seen in most Malaysian kitchens.

After all, the olive tree is not native to tropical countries, and its fruit rather small, stony, not sweet on the tongue and cannot be eaten straight from the tree.

You could call it an acquired taste, not love at first bite perhaps, but once one is familiar with its unique flavour, the olive is something that you tend to keep a jar, tin or a packetful in the kitchen at all times.
So what of its history, its varieties and the best ways to enjoy it?

Olives are one of the oldest foods known, and are believed to have originated in Crete between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. Their cultivation and use quickly spread throughout Egypt, Greece, Palestine and then the Mediterranean generally.

Olives are mentioned in the Bible, depicted in ancient Egyptian art, and played an important role in Greek mythology.

Since ancient times, the olive tree has provided food, fuel, timber and medicine for many civilisations.

It has also been regarded as a symbol of peace and wisdom. An olive branch, anybody? Olive oil has been consumed since 3000 BC.

Olives cannot be eaten right off the tree; they require special processing to reduce their intrinsic bitterness, caused by a chemical oleuropein, which is concentrated in their skin.

Processing methods vary with the olive variety, cultivation region and the desired taste, texture and colour to be created.

Harvested in the autumn, some olives are picked green and unripe, while others are allowed to fully ripen on the tree to a black colour.

Yet, not all of the black olives available begin with a black colour. Some processing methods expose unripe greens olives to the air, and the subsequent oxidation turns them a darker colour.

In addition to the original colour of the olive determining its finished characteristics, the colour is also affected by a variety of processing methods that olives undergo including fermentation and/or curing in oil, water, brine or salt.

These methods may not only cause the olives to turn black, purple, brown, red, or yellow, but they also affect the skin texture, causing it to be smooth and shiny or shrivelled and wrinkled.

Some of the many available delicious varieties of olives have names such as Kalamata, Nicoise, Nyon, Cerignola, Picholine, Sevillano and Manzanilla.

In addition to varying in size and appearance, the flavour of olives spans the range from sour to smoky to bitter to acidic.

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