By Ellie Downing
For thousands of years olives have been viewed as a symbol of importance and peace. Archeologists have uncovered olive mills and presses, sculpted oil jars, as well as discarded pits, indicating a rich history of cultivation starting well before 3000 BC. Native to the Mediterranean region, the top olive and olive oil producers today include Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, Morocco and California. Three-quarters of the world’s olive oil comes from countries belonging to the European Union.
Ranging in color from pale green, deep eggplant, to black, olives boast a variety of flavors perfect for giving your favorite pasta or salad a little kick. Some of the most popular varieties include manzanilla, picholine, kalamata, niçoise and lugano. The difference between green and black olives is simply their ripeness. Unripe olives are green, whereas ripe olives are black.
Olives contain a high monounsaturated fat content and no cholesterol. Additionally, olives are a good source of iron, vitamin E, copper, and dietary fiber. Olive oil is the only vegetable oil edible right after pressing. No further processing is necessary which ensures we benefit from all those healthy natural antioxidants left in the oil.
Before delving into this wonderful fruit, however we do need to remove the glucoside, a particularly bitter compound.
Thankfully, the bitterness is naturally removed during the pressing process when producing olive oil. Olives harvested for their oil are picked ripe in late autumn and winter by means of traditional hand-picking or use of mechanical tree-shakers. The first press (‘virgin’ olive oil) is often very green and sharp in taste, which some prefer to the mild, more mature pressings. ‘Extra Virgin’ olive oil indicates a low acidity often desired for flavor.
Olives reserved for their fruit, often called table olives, are harvested at various degrees of ripeness depending the desired texture and taste. Table olives once picked are first cured to remove the bitterness and then often packed in olive oil or vinegar. Curing techniques include water-curing, defined by repeated water soaking and rinsing (a lengthy process), brine curing (often combined with the use of herbs and spices to impart a particular flavor), lye curing or dry curing. Dry cured olives are packed in salt. This process removes the excess water from the fruit resulting in a dry, furrowed fruit. Table olives are available whole, sliced and chopped, not to mention pitted, un-pitted and stuffed. Some of our favorites are stuffed with pimentos, jalapenos, garlic and almonds.