The trees, with their dusty silver-green leaves and gnarled gray trunks set in dry red-clay soil, seem biblical, and of course they are. Olive trees have been considered sacred for thousands of years: they figure in both Testaments of the Bible and in Greek and Roman mythology, where the oil of their fruit is used more for ceremonial anointing, lighting lamps, and encouraging lustrous skin than for eating.


Nutritionists may be debating just how much olive oil we should now consume, but for the most part they’re telling us that we should indeed consume it. Noting the very long lives enjoyed by people who live in Crete and southern Italy, Walter Willett, the head of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, suggests that we can continue consuming fat, to which we all seem very addicted, at our current rate of roughly 35 percent of total calories, as long as it is primarily olive oil. This would mean daily consumption of olive oil and olives, which are also high in antioxidants, today’s nutritional miracle. Others reply that although olive oil seems less harmful to the heart than other fats, American fat consumption is a public-health disaster, and we should aim for just 10 (or at most 20) percent fat consumption.

While the debate continues, the world of the olive is being carefully studied. That world is the Mediterranean, where table olives come in as many varieties as olive oil seems to----more, in fact. Most Americans would never guess how rich and varied olives are: they know only California “black-ripe” olives, inert impostors robbed of their flavor and manipulated to change color to boot, and green martini olives, hard and tasteless and stuffed with a lurid strip of extruded red peppers.

The textures and flavors of real olives range from flinty and sharp and bitingly salty to soft, voluptuous, and sweetly fruity. These are the olives that both children and adults who live around the Mediterranean, where olives are a ubiquitous part of the diet, eaten like popcorn.

At dinner parties, before the meal I now serve only olives, which go with a vast variety of wines: if I were happy to see guests fill up on hunks of bread and big wedges of cheese, I wouldn’t bother to cook dinner. Conversely, olives, cheese, a few cut-up vegetables, and a loaf of bread make an ample board at a cocktail party. Olives also have more uses in cooking than enlivening the few pasta sauces I have always strewn them into.

Olives arc the classic acquired taste —mostly, I think, because Americans aren’t used to anything bitter. The only bitter substance we regularly consume is coffee, usually very weak and often masked with milk and sugar. The bitterness can be ameliorated by boiling olives in water for twenty to forty seconds and then draining them, although this treatment should be reserved for especially bitter olives. Another impediment is saltiness; for those who don’t like salt, a preliminary rinsing will remove much of it without removing flavor.

Also, some people think that because of their rich flavor and because they are pressed for olive oil, olives must he all fat—as caloric as nuts, that other cupboard standby to go with drinks. They’re not. Small green olives typically have two to three calories each, large green four to six; small black have three to five calories, large black eight to twelve. With the reported health benefits of olives and the new varieties being imported from the Mediterranean countries, there s no reason not to eat them like popcorn.

A MERICANS ARE USED TO TASTELESS OLIVES BECAUSE that’s what industrial processes yield. California olives are treated with lye to remove a very bitter substance called oleuropein (from Oiea euro-pea, the olive’s botanical name). The lye also removes most of what gives the olives flavor, and leaves them bland and hard without being crunchy. Lye-treated olives need help to taste like anything: spices and herbs in the brine, a stuffing with mushrooms or almonds or anchovies or pimcntos.

Whereas olives that will he treated with lye can be picked unripe and hard, able to withstand careless handling, real olives must be handpicked and processed immediately so that they won’t spoil. They are repeatedly rinsed in plain water, often for ten days (lye treatment takes a few hours or less), and are then preserved in brine or under dry salt. While the olives are in their brine, they ferment: airborne yeasts change their sugar to lactic acid, which gives them a sharpness and helps to preserve them. The process is similar to brining cabbage for sauerkraut or any other vegetable for a pickle.

The anthropologist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett recently observed that fermented foods like wine and cheese best preserve the taste of a particular region: they convey the flavor not just of the earth and the water but also of the very air. Olives, which rely on spontaneous yeasts, exemplify her theory even better than wines, most of which are fermented with commercially produced yeasts, or cheeses, which often are inoculated with bacteria.

Greek cooks use olive brine to salt vegetable stocks and to thin olive-cheese spreads, and as a nostrum for a variety of ills. Most large packagers rinsed the olives and pack them in a less salty, clear brine. Sotiris Kitrilakis, the man behind Peloponnese-brand foods, who imports many varieties of handpicked, carefully cured olives from Greece doesn’t throw out the precious “mother brine”: he dilutes and filters it, so customers won’t l)e alarmed by seeing too many particles floating in the bottle. The many colors of real olives—not shrill green or a phony black, which is produced by bubbling OX~~Cfl through green olives in a lye bath—are a sign of the stage at which they were picked. The bright green starts fading as the olive ripens; gradually the color darkens, although more to a mottled brown— black, often with shades of rose and violet, than to an even patch-black. These prettily veined olives often look like purple-stained (ltlail’s eggs. At its darkest an olive achieves its maximum oil content of 12 to 3(1 percent (far from the 100 percent many people illogically suppose), and this is when olives for oil are usually picked. These olives generally contain less oil than the varieties used for oil. Green olives, with their low oil content, will be hard and crunchy, with a definite tang. Black olives will be softer, wkh a sweeter, mellower flavor. The percentage of salt in the brine, how long and at what temperature the olives ferment in the brine betirc they are ready to cat, and whether the brine includes any aromatics such as garlic, orange, lemon, fennel seed, and cracked peppercorns are tricks of the trade kept secret by artisans.

          I recently tasted several dozen kinds of olives, of every color, size, and cure, and assembled a basic olive inventory. Inspite a number of books on olive oil, no comprehensive olive glossaries exist. Paula Wolfert, an authority on foods of the Mediterranean and the author of definitive books on the cuisines of Morocco and southwestern France and of the recent World of Food, is at work on an olive cookbook that will clear up many mysteries. For now the best source is Maggie Blyth Klein’s The Feast of/he Olive, which omits many kinds of olives that are today imported but were not when the book was ptuhlished, in 1983. I list only olives I could find that weren’t processed with lye, not out of snobbery but because a lye-treated olive makes itself apparent so fast: in the middle of the first bite the initial

JUNE 9, 2003

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