More than You Probably Wanted to Know about Olives

Some people salivate over music. Others get their passion behind literature. Me? I get all a twitter when it comes to the minutia of food facts. I realize this makes me a geek, but “geek” is a badge I will wear proudly.

Here’s the key idea that you need to take away when you think of olives: Although there are hundreds, if not thousands of varieties of olives, the majority of them are all (at times) green , dark rose, wine red, mahogany, purple, dark violet, and black. The color of the olive is primarily dependant upon the point in time in which you pick the pitted fruit.

A green olive is an unripe olive (much like a green banana is an unripe banana). A black olive is a ripe olive. There is an entire color schema between green and black. Admittedly this is a bit of a simplification, as there are nuances of color between certain varities picked at the same stages, but for the most part the color schema works across varietal lines.

Olives are not edible, green or ripe, and must be treated with lye and/or cured in brine or dry salt before being edible. The brining process helps remove the bitterness (caused by glucoside oleuropein) and impart whatever flavors are in the brining solution. This process is as important as the olives used.

However, there are many other differences between olive varieties. Some of them include the size of the olive, size of the pit, texture of the flesh, shape of the olive, oil content of the olive, and last but not least, taste. Some olives make better olive oil producers, other make better appetizers.

So when you’re at your local olive purveyor, remember that the color of any olive is not particular to any specific olive variety.

Listed below are some of the more popular Olives found in our stores -

Arbequina: A small, brown olive grown in Catalonia, Spain. As well as being used as a table olive, its oil is highly valued.

Ascolano: Very large, ellipsoidal fruit. Skin color very light even when ripe, pit very small. Fruit is tender and must be handled carefully. Contains very little bitterness and requires only moderate lye treatment. Excellent for pickles.

Barouni: Large fruit, almost as large as Sevillano. The variety usually shipped to the East Coast for making home-cured olives. Originally from Tunisia.

Empeltre: A medium sized, black olive grown in Spain. They are used both as a table olive and to produce a high quality olive oil.

Gordal: Medium to large, plump fruit, ripening early. Resembles Sevillano. A popular pickling olive and principal cultivar in Spain.

Kalamata:(or Calamata) Dark eggplant-colored Greek olives. The are usually packed in olive oil or vinegar, and are frequently slit so they absorb the flavor of the wine vinegar marinade in which they are soaked.

Lucques: Originated in the south of France. They are green, of a large size, and elongated. The bone has an arcuated shape. Their flavour is mild and nutty.

Manzanillo: Large, rounded-oval fruit. Skin brilliant purple, changing to deep blue-black when mature. Excellent for oil and pickles.

Mission: Medium-sized, oval fruit. Skin deep purple changing to jet-black when ripe. Flesh very bitter but firm, freestone. Good for pickling and oil, specially ripe pickles. Most widely used for cold-pressed olive oil in California. Grown at the old missions in California.

Picholine: An Olive originating from France. Small, elongated fruit. Skin light green, changing to wine red, then red-black when ripe. Usually salt-brine cured. Popular in gourmet and specialty markets.

Rubra: Medium-small, ovate fruit. Skin jet-black when ripe. Ripens 3 to 4 weeks earlier than Mission. Best suited for oil, but is also used for pickling. Originated in France.

Sevillano: Very large fruit, bluish-black when ripe. The largest California commercial variety. Ripens early. Low oil content, only useful in pickling. Used for making Sicilian style salt brine cured olives, also the leading canning cultivar.

There are many more olives, and I could post several columns about it, but this will give you a good start.


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