December/January 2011

Getting to Know: Olives

All olives are harvested from October to January, whatever the variety. The time of their harvest determines their color and flavor. A highly bitter, naturally occurring chemical renders olives inedible straight from the tree, so curing is necessary. Some olives are cured with salt, others with salt and water (brine), some with oil or even lye. These days, the olive options at the store are bewildering. We’ll help you sort them out.


Manzanillas, produced in Spain and California, are the pimento-stuffed olives you find in glass jars on grocery store shelves; they are brine-cured. Manzanillas have “meaty flesh” and can be “a little bitter” or sour. Best known for garnishing a martini, they are also used in the luncheon meat referred to as “olive loaf” and in the Latin rice dish arroz con pollo. Add the olives at the end of cooking to avoid bitterness.


No need to beware this gift: Kalamatas are delicious out of hand or in cooked dishes. We loved their “creamy” flesh and “earthy” but “not overly strong” flavor. Kalamatas are brine-cured, then packed in vinegar-heavy brine. To pit them (and many other olives), press them with the flat side of a knife, splitting the olive and exposing the pit. Use them in tapenade or caponata.


The canned version of the Mission olive—the one you’re most likely to find—may be the olive you stuck on the ends of your fingers as a kid. Mission olives, unique to the United States, were originally cultivated on Jesuit and Franciscan missions in California, hence their name. They are oval and medium in size and they turn jet black when ripe. Tasters panned them as “watery mush” and “metallic.” Ban this can from your pantry.


Hailing from Nice, France, these tiny, oval olives range in color from purple-brown to brown-black, depending on ripeness. For their size, they’re assertive, with a “lingering bitterness.” The pit is also big for such a small olive, prompting tasters to wonder, “Where’s the meat?” Niçoise olives costar in niçoise salad with tuna (or anchovies), hard-cooked egg, green beans, and potatoes.


Rich, intense “coffeelike depth” makes these popular Italian olives well suited to slow-cooked stews and braises. Since they stay on the tree until ripe, they develop bold, “earthy” flavors. They can be either dry-cured (with just salt), which turns them black and wrinkled, or brine-cured and then dipped in olive oil (as shown here).


The picholine is a green, torpedo-shaped olive grown primarily in France, Morocco, and California. They are usually harvested while still green, so they maintain their “crisp and creamy” texture. Enjoy picholines, which are brine-cured, on their own or on an antipasto platter, where their “clean and briny,” “almost buttery” flavor can shine.


“Oil-cured” is not a type of olive, but rather, it’s a dry-brined olive coated with olive oil to rehydrate. They’re typically sold as “oil-cured” Moroccan or Provençal. Tasters preferred the “mild, floral,” herb-coated Provençal olives for eating out of hand and the salty Moroccan olives for cooking. Keep oil-cured olives moist (add more olive oil if necessary) and store in the refrigerator.


A large olive native to Chile, the Alfonso gets its purple color from the red wine or red wine vinegar in which it’s cured. The wine also gives the olive a sour, “plum-like” flavor. A minority of tasters disliked the Alfonso’s “squishy” texture, but most found it “very soft—in a good way.” Eat these large, meaty olives as a snack.


Grown primarily in a small town of the same name in Sicily, the Castelvetrano is harvested young and cured in lightly salted water, which accounts for its green-apple color and “meaty” texture. Their mild, “buttery” flavor makes Castelvetranos the perfect olive for people who aren’t sure they like olives. Castelvetranos oxidize quickly and lose their color, so keep them submerged in their brine until you’re ready to serve them.


These “dense and firm” olives from Seville, Spain, are one of the largest green varieties. Their size also gives them their other names: “queen” and “colossal.” Their “light,” “fruity,” and “peppery” flavor makes them a natural with mild cheeses. And while the manzanilla is the traditional martini olive, we prefer our drink with a gordal.


This small olive, which is also called the Taggiasca, grows on the northwest coast of Italy. Tasters noted its “tough skin,” “relatively soft flesh,” and “fruity and sweet” quality. Eat them as a snack or as an ingredient in pasta dishes (puttanesca, anyone?). They yield high-quality oil, as well. Ligurian olives make a good substitute for niçoise olives, and like the niçoise, they have a large pit.


These olives from the boot of Italy are usually picked when they are barely ripe. Either green, black, or maroon, they are brine-cured with a small amount of vinegar. Tasters found them slightly sweet, “vegetal,” and “fresh and fruity” with a “firm, almost immature texture.” Given its dimension (about the size of a walnut), the Cerignola is best for snacking.