Brined Table Olives

Of the many memories the book “Zorba the Greek” left with me, there’s one particular scene that stands out to me a fantastic read. It’s when Zorba and the younger man who befriends him (the narrator of the story) have bread and olives for breakfast. The story takes place between wars on the island of Crete. Food is humble and often scarce. Still, Zorba knows how to make the most of these elemental dishes and this is reflected in one of the lines that became a famous quote, “I felt once more how simple a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness in a simple, frugal heart.”

I always felt — perhaps influenced by the reading of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel — that olives represent that ancient world more than any other food. In fact, the wisdom of Zorba is, at least in part, a product of places like his and many other countries in the Mediterranean where life was hard. In places like Andalucía, Sicily, Portugal, Southern France, Turkey, Morocco and Lebanon, table olives were an important part of the diet and they made up for the lack of other resources. This was not the case of richer areas where olive trees grew, as with Tuscany or Liguria, where olives were mostly saved for prized olive oil.
Today, it’s possible to produce table olives in the same fashion they were produced during Zorba’s time. That’s what we do at Pacific Sun.
Raw olives are too bitter to be eaten out of the tree. Thus olives need to be cured. All methods deal with de-bittering the olives, leaching the oleoeuropein — an anti-oxidant compound that’s in part responsible for the bitter taste — out to render the olives more palatable. This can be done in different ways.
Most commercial olives that fill supermarket shelves or olive bars are cured with lye. This curing takes about eight hours and a couple of days of rinsing, and can produce very tasty olives. The problem with this method is that it removes all enzymes, nutrients and antioxidants.
The traditional method was to use brine (salt and water) or plain salt (this is a dry method for ripe olives that causes the skin of the olives to become wrinkled). The brine, while de-bittering, produces a lacto-fermentation with the sugars extracted from the olives that add particular flavors along with beneficial microorganisms typical of fermented foods.
The problem with brine: time. While lye makes the olives edible in a couple of days, brine can take months and even years depending on ripeness and variety. For instance, last year, in November and December, we cured three types of olives: Kalamatas, Manzanillos and Mission. While the Kalamatas were ready in June, we’re still waiting for the green Manzanillos and purple Mission.
The required patience pays off not only by preserving nutritious elements but also with specific flavors that are obtained only through fermentation and longer curing times (some nice bitterness is left, some pungency, a mild fermented brine-y taste, etc.).
Our goal is to produce olives that have an interesting flavor before being marinated or dressed with spices, citrus or olive oil. Then, it’s true that the humble olive can offer such a world of possibilities when dressed: to deepen the acid taste with lemon juice, to create a counterpoint with the sweetness of oranges or tangerines (a favorite during the time of the Arabs in Spain, the great Andalusi cuisine), to accentuate the bitterness with herbs such as thyme or rosemary, or with lemon zest, to increase the pungency with chilies, or to use them to enrich pasta sauces or casseroles.
Or, to go back to simplicity and memories of old good books, to have them with plain bread and olive oil as Zorba had them. As much as I tried to resist using Lawrence Durrell’s quote (you find it in every article about olives), I can’t help using it here.
Nobody has put it better so far: “The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palms, the gold breads, the bearded heroes, the wine, the ideas, the ships, the moonlight, the winged gorgons, the bronze men, the philosophers – all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent smell of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water…
Salud! On behalf of the Pacific Sun Olive Oil Team,
PS1: Since I’ve mentioned books and writers, let me recommend along with Kazantzakis’ works (he also wrote “The Last Temptation of Christ”) and Lawrence Durrell’s works, a book by Henry Miller, “The Colossus of Maroussi.” PS2: We make olives mostly for our clients in the food service. We’re proud that excellent restaurants such as La Ciccia, Camino, Toast, Chop Bar, Duende, Farmshop and Saint Vincent in the bay Area, Pizzeria Bianco in Arizona, and Leon Bistro and Farm Star Pizza in Chico use them. If you want to buy some of our olives please contact us and we’ll be happy to ship them to you.
Posted on Categories General, Recipes